6th January, 2018
The door that has lost its mechanism
At Cubitt where I have a studio the door into the ladies toilet has one of those devices attached that when you open it, it will automatically close after you, it also stops the door from banging closed and instead closes it slowly, smoothly and without making a noise. We had this fitted in order to reduce the noise for the surrounding studios every time someone entered and left the toilet.
On entering the toilet the other day I pushed open the door as I always had with an exact level of pressure needed to push the door open, but instead of the door having some resistance the door had no resistance and opened dramatically, quickly and flinging open wide, slamming into the wall with a very loud crash.
The door mechanism had broken off and was now lying on the table in the toilet reception area, the screws that had attached it to the architecture wrenched from the masonry and wooden sockets of wall and door, evidenced by bits of mortar dust and wood chip still attached to the screws and plugs hanging from the redundant mechanism.
Now, without this mechanism on the door I would need to open and close the door in a very different way from before. 1. I had to apply considerably less physical pressure when opening it. 2. Once inside I had to close the door behind me (with the mechanism it would have closed on it own) 3. Leaving the room I had to carefully pull the door slowly open as not to let the door slam back on the wall 4. Close the door behind me with equal care. So my routine of opening and closing this door had been dramatically altered. You would think well so what! All doors need opening and closing in different ways, something I suppose I had not thought about much before. No door action is the same even if it is the same mechanism and same door type from the same manufacturer. Depending on where and how and who fitted it, it will behave in a different way. For example, the temperature in the rooms/spaces on each side of the door will alter how the door materials expand and retract and affect the doors movement, such as if the wood has expanded in the door it will sit and react differently to the frame it is set within when opening and closing. The size of the rooms, the movement of air in both inside and outside space will affect the way the door opens and closes and so on.
The door into the ladies at Cubitt I had used many times and knew exactly how much pressure to apply to get in and out so that it had become an automatic action. Whereas when entering an unfamiliar door (such as a building one visits for the first time,) then we tend to act with a level of caution as we are not to know how that door will behave – new door encounters we have to establish the affective effort needed to open and close it.
Every time I went to the ladies at Cubitt since the mechanism broke, clearly not thinking reflectively I slammed it open with almost as much surprise as with the first time it happened. What was going on here? Why was it so difficult for me to remember to open the door carefully? This was down to a deep rooted muscle memory – well brain and body memory – establishing an automatic interaction with the door built up over days, months and years of using it, and I was clearly finding it difficulty to reprogram myself to open the door differently. It was not just me doing this, but others in the studio, as I found out when leaving the toilet recently, the door been flung open nearly hitting me in the face. The person coming in was genuinely shocked by the doors’ erratic movement and anxious that they might have caused an accident if I had been a few centimeters closer. When a material or object acts/functions in an unfamiliar way this can create all levels of surprise and anxiety for the handler and also those in proximity from marginal to severe. I would say the toilet door scored about 7/10 where as a slate falling from the roof of a building and smashing on the pavement next to you only missing by a few inches (this happened to be recently) scored a frightening 9/10, to peeling blu tac off the wall and it annoyingly pulling with it a bit more wall paint than anticipated a 3/10.
What I found was that leaving the toilet was less dangerous than entering just because the mechanism that had broken off the door lay inside on the table next to the door acting as a visual reminder as one left the room to apply less pressure to the door when opening it to leave. Also, the time spent in the toilet was little enough not to forget about the doors new behavior before leaving. So now I have to conscientiously think about the door when entering in a way I have not had to before. I’m thinking of putting a red sticker on the door as a visual indicator to stop me in my tracks as I career towards the toilet door to open it. I did this at my parents home on one the kitchen cabinets, because one of the doors had loosened and when opening you had to support it from the bottom to stop it dropping down (the hinges were old and could not take the weight of the door anymore so as it opened it dropped down, and so when closing, it was then out of alignment with the cupboard and would not close). By placing a small red sticker at the exact place where one would usually open the kitchen cabinet acted as a reminder to treat this door differently to the others – and it really worked. The sticker has been there for 15 years and still does the trick – mind you it is crazy that it has still not been fixed. I do hope the Cubitt toilet door will be fixed a bit quicker!
14th November, 2017
I was in a restaurant a few days ago having lunch with my partner Mark. I was sat with my back to the wall facing into the center of the room where a few steps ascend from the bar and kitchen space into the main seating-eating area. It is a smart place, a French bistro where the waiters wear tightly wrapped long aprons and are constantly checking everything is satisfactory with your meal – which can be a bit much sometimes – I’m not overly keen on having my glass constantly topped up with wine – never having the chance to get to the bottom of a single measure until the end of the bottle!
As we finished our meal we both looked up suddenly in response to a loud crash, to see one of the waiters hurtle across the room, tray in one hand heading towards the floor at high speed. He had tripped up on one of the stairs and dived forward landing on one knee, his other leg lurching forward to block a full fall. The contents of the coffee cups on the tray lifted up out of their containers and headed downwards to splash and disperse across the floor in slow motion. I know this sounds like a cliché – but it really does feel that time slows down when you witness an incident like this, because you can see the event unfold in front of you but are powerless to intervene in time to prevent the unfortunate outcome. It is as if it takes time for the viewers’ eyes and brain to engage the rest of their body (legs to move, activating torso and arms in an attempt to rush forward and catch the falling waiter and his load), so all you can do is watch like an audience trapped in theatre seats. The waiter amazingly managed to keep the tray upright, and although he maintained control over the tray and to a certain extent the cups and saucers on top, only loosing one of the three, he had no control over the fluid contained in the cups, so the milk and coffee of all three vessels lifted out and headed for the floor, splaying out into a multitude of energetic arc shaped crowns as the substances exploded on impact with the floor.
This dramatic event, of which I had a front seat, displayed a number of material actions and reactions. The different weights and consistencies of the material the waiter was carrying reacted distinctively. The tray at the base held directly by the waiter was the most stable material and the item the handler had the most control of, then the cups and saucers above – one resting on the other with their own potential slippage and then inside these cups the hot unpredictable liquid that moved with the slightest exertion. So from the bottom upward the stack of materials was increasingly vulnerable when subjected to such rapid motion – as being dropped as the waiter fell. The contents of the coffee swept across the floor in the direction of the forward plunging waiter. It becomes clear when observing any liquid spill which direction the action was generated by the shape of the splatter. Looking at the aftermath on the floor I became the forensic scientist deciphering a murder case. Which direction did the killer attack their victim – where did the attacker approach from to cause the blood splatter on the floor… was he attacked from behind or taken by surprise from the side…
A hush fell across the restaurant as the single cup, contents of all three cups and waiter crashed to the floor. Also, as the waiter fell he knocked the table and chairs in front of him – creating a cacophony of jarring noises – ceramics meeting wooden floor, wooden table and chair legs dragged across wooden floor, human body protected by fabric colliding with wooden floor and liquid splashing onto wooden floor and surrounding wooden furniture. I wanted to applaud the waiter for his performance and achievement to hang onto the tray and three remaining cups and saucers, but no one else appeared to want to join in so I refrained and just quietly told the very embarrassed waiter when I left what a fantastic spectacle his fall had been and that I hoped he was ok. I could see that the restaurant manager was annoyed with him, whereas his colleagues where supportive, ‘taking the piss’ out of him in order to lift his spirits. The next few minutes that followed I watched the clean up procedure – two waiters wiping, mopping and brushing up the aftermath while the fallen waiter stood back to recompose. He seemed quite shaken up, from both the fall and the immanent reprimand he was anticipating from his manager at the end of his shift.
The table and surrounding chairs where this spilt liquid had shot underneath was swiftly moved to one side, a waiter came out with reams of blue disposable toweling dropping it on top of the liquid to absorb the majority of the spill, then a waiter with a brush and pan magically appeared sweeping up the broken ceramics, followed by a broom and bucket to mop up the remaining liquid, and then followed by more blue paper to dry and polish the floor. No more than five minutes had passed from the opening fall, and table and chairs were back in position and service was elegantly resumed. It was a magnificent cover up – as if nothing had happened – as if a restaurant of this caliber could never make such a blunder! But if the forensics had returned traces of milky coffee would have been detected travelling between the herring bone parquet flooring, droplets hidden on the legs of the table and chairs and minute fibers from the cotton apron of the fallen waiter wedged between the grains of the wood floor.
Exhibited at Gallery Box, Gothenburg, Sweden. 10/11-10/12 2017
26th September, 2017
The ground we walk on
When walking in a crowded place, we weave paths to avoid collisions with others. We are constantly reading and calculating the surface of the ground we are walking on, the objects protruding from it (bollards, sign posts etc) and people coming towards us, while also being able to have a conversation with the friend walking beside us. Aren’t we amazing! We are constantly taking a visual record of the surfaces around and beneath us to make sure the path is clear and will not cause us to trip or stand on something unpleasant or dangerous, while also reading the body language of the person/s coming in our direction to make sure we do not bump into them. We might be making eye contact, but more likely we are reading their body language, the way they move to calculate which way they are likely to move next. A child or dog can be less predictable and collisions are more likely.
I’m particularly interested in the way we respond to the ground, what it is made of and how we negotiate it. Depending on what footwear we have on, or if we are barefoot will alter how we walk on a surface. For example, in summer when I am wearing sandals with thin soles I am much more careful to how and where I place my feet, not to tread on anything that will push up through the sole, like a sharp stone that could distort the base of my sandal making it uncomfortable to push down on, or to avoid wet areas, such as puddles of water that will seep over the shoe edge and creep between my toes, and probably the most common and uncomfortable the stray bit of grit or small stone that finds its way into the shoe getting trapped under the sole of your foot. Depending on the size of the intrusive material it is likely that you have to stop, take off your foot ware and remove the culprit, or if you are wearing a sandal, to tip your foot upside down to allow the hard piece of stuff to fall away.
I enjoy wearing walking boots in order to minimise these chances of stray intruders so I can walk confidently without worrying about the irregularities below my feet, and instead look up and forward to where I am going. However looking down and really noticing what you are standing on is an education in materials, an acknowledgement of the part of our bodies that are most in contact with the world of stuff and an insight into the environment we are moving through. For example, recently when walking down the streets of Palermo in Sicily I noticed unlike the pavements of London they are covered in loose bits, whether building debris, dog shit or other! In most cities in the UK we take for granted that the payments are kept clean so that we can walk along them without paying much attention to our feet as we do so. This makes getting from a to b pretty straight forward but maybe this clean flat journey disengages us from our feet and our contact with the earth beneath. I found walking the streets of Palermo incredibly visceral, as if the ground was offering up an experience that was a truthful reflection of life around – gritty, irregular and unpredictable, definitely not tidy or artificial. I would even go to say that the experience was life changing in exposing key elements of Sicilian lived life – a dead dog, bird, rat, a carcass of a fish, excrement….. Walking on sanitised pavements is pleasant but you could say artificial, it is whether you want pleasant and nice or real and challenging.
This makes me think of air conditioned spaces, keeping us cool and comfortable inside when outside is hot and uncomfortable, but this can create a very detached environment and I personally would prefer to be more in tune with the spaces I occupy, warts and all….. We are in danger with having so many high tech amenities in our living spaces – heating, air conditioning, air fresheners, dehumidifiers, padded seating, thick piled carpets, the list goes on, to become detached from our environment and also our own physical bodies. The smell of rotten food, exposed weather conditions, our own physicality, such as using our bodies to rest without the support of a chair or stool, ie to squat using the lower part of your legs to support the weight of you own torso. When doing this, not only do you create your own chair but you also become very aware of your own body mass and weight. All these things help us to connect to a vital and more honest environment, which is heightened further when something goes wrong – a loose paving stone that traps water underneath it that when trodden on squirts this water upwards soaking your legs, or more dramatically a sump hole causing the earth to literally disappear from under you.
It is important to be reminded of the planets unpredictable crust, what lies beneath, where things have gone before and where new things will be built on top, and that below the multitude of slick surfaces there hides an array of exciting materials and surprising matter.
12th August, 2017
Why is touching glass so dissatisfying? I was reading ‘Stuff Matters’ by Mark Miodownik, and he was describing how glass was ‘smooth, transparent and cool’, and as these are not human physical qualities we therefore find it difficult to relate to or care about it. Also it is a material that we look through rather than at, and there is a lot of it about! So, maybe not a very special or extraordinary material, and yet it is a miraculous material – its capacity to be totally transparent, very strong, and facility to be distorted to make all matter of lenses (glasses and microscopes etc.)
Well, after reading this chapter about glass in Mark’s book I started to touch glass a lot more, beautiful crafted glass such as the colourful cut vintage wine glasses I have collected over the years, and plain glass in windows, display cabinets and simple drinking glasses etc. When you focus on just clear flat glass apposed to the ornate colourful stuff, it is a bit like drinking water to touch. If asked what water tastes like, I can only say it tastes like water and water tastes like nothing else. I can describe its cool refreshing-ness but not its flavour. I feel the same about plain clear glass when touching it – feels very neutral with no one outstanding characteristic. Maybe it’s transparent-ness affects the way we interact with it. It is like an invisible touch that struggles to go beyond my hand, but remains in the sensory pads on my fingertips. I do think coloured glass has a different sensation to clear glass. This experience of touching the transparent colourless stuff makes me think that our experience of touch is very much affected by what we see, the sensory and visual working together. So if something is totally transparent it feels visually empty and therefore sensory deprived, but if glass is coloured, I experience it differently through touch, as the eyes and the fingers are both working together, or more specifically the hand and the brain are working together.
This brings me to the idea discussed so rampantly in the area of anthropology, the notion that the hands feed the brain, (apposed to the other way around) and through actions of touch the brain is formed and can evolve, for it is the hands when they come in contact with a material send the experience literally up our arms and to our brain where then it is made further sense of. Of course it is not that simple, but given it has been described the other way round for so long – that the brain informs all our physical actions, and through its intellect makes sense of all things physical. This seems to me very limited given that without a physical interaction with things, how can the brain begin to understand the world and the stuff in it other than as an abstract idea.
I am very sensitive to this hot wire between my hands (although this can be extended to other parts of my body, such as feet and elbows etc,) and my brain. For example, a repetitive action performed by my hands to learn and master a skill, such as peeling an apple, my brain and hand work in unison, the brain making decisions to how to hold the apple and the knife and my hands responding with an action that is within the capabilities of my physical material body. Everything the hand does is directed by the brain and then the hands send sensory signals back to the brain so it can make the next decision and together the action can take place – but by no means in that order, but as a continues and sophisticated flow between the two. The importance of the hand and brain as an interlocking unit, gives them equal value where there is no hierarchy between intellect and physical interaction, knowledge and dexterous skill. Even if the brain is devoid of its body, such as the body becoming physically disabled, the brain uses its memory of the physical world in order to generate its imagination of physical experience. Without any interaction with objects and stuff there is no intellect of these things. So get of the sofa from your theory books and go and interact with the world, or else the words in the book will have no meaning!
23rd July, 2017
I have to talk about glass, as I am so excited about it!
Yesterday I went on a glassblowing course. Ricky Keech was our tutor – myself and a woman called Sally. Ricky explained very clearly and carefully (very important when you are dealing with very hot and dangerous stuff) each step of the process and then trusted in us to handle it! Well handle is probably not the right word – more a mediated handling, as one thing you never do is touch/handle the molten glass with your hands – even though it looks so incredibly inviting to touch. The furnace had been heating up since 7am so by the time we got started at 10 it was incredibly hot and the glass inside was glaringly pale yellow – almost white. The main reason I was interested in doing this course was my intrigue to work with a material I could not directly handle, and to see how my hand-material engagement skills would be tested, and whether it was possible to ‘feel’ and understand the material through the tools I was using apposed to direct (hand) touch, unlike say working with clay on a potters wheel.
The first thing that struck me was that when you enter the furnace with the long metal rod (long so that you are at a distance from the heat) to gather the molten glass by turning the rod in the liquid crucible, when you pull it away out of the furnace you can hardly feel the material gathered on the end of the rod – how it moves or its weight, due to the relatively small amount of glass gathered which is slight compared to the weight of the rod. It is only when you get considerably more glass gathered on the rod (I know there is a proper name for this rod but as a total amateur I don’t feel too guilty about calling it this) that you feel its weight beyond the weight of the metal rod.
I began to realise as I worked with this material that my understanding of its behavioral qualities was being obtained primarily through vision and not touch. And where I was ‘feeling’ the material through the tools I was using, I was really interpreting the sensation of feeling through what I was gathering visually. In fact visually the moving molten glass appears seductive and calm, not aggressive and dangerous like the fire in the furnace and you almost feel you can actually touch it – but of course if you did you would end up with the most severe burns.
What was so extraordinary for me was how malleable and yet extremely strong it was. I mean that when for example you stretch glass, pulling thin into strands, you think as you pull the glass using pliers it will break – but it doesn’t – it can be pulled so thin and when it starts to dry and fix itself it is incredibly strong. Ricky showed us long strands that he had pulled in glass, which when I saw them I thought they were strands of nylon wire, but when I touched them they were flexible and incredibly strong. Of course you could break them if you wanted, but in the scale of strong materials – thickness to strength – glass must score very high.
The experience of glassblowing was pure wonder – somehow because you are dealing with fire you have to have total respect for the process and maintain extreme concentration. Once you start to make something there is really no stopping, as everything needs to be done while the glass is hot and in constant motion – you can’t put it down and rest! This intensity stops you thinking about anything other than the job at hand – which is a rare thing. I did this course a few months after my dear father passed away and in these moments of glass manipulation I totally released myself from any thoughts of sadness and melancholic memories – only thinking glass, glass, glass. This total uninterrupted concentration I had also with pot throwing, but then again you can always stop the wheel and rest at any point unlike working with glass. Glass is a material that relies on being in constant motion when in it molten state of becoming – turning, turning to stop it being pulled towards the floor by gravity, and being extremely hot in order to shape, so you have to work fast once the glass comes out of the furnace, and then return it to the furnace when it becomes to cool to work with.
So – with my rod in the fire gathering glass from within the furnace crucible and the constant turning so that the material does not fall off you become acutely aware of the changing positions of the rod and your hands that are doing this – although you never really get to look at your hands as you are always focused on the ball of hot matter at the end of the rod. It is like walking with a tray full of cups of tea constantly adjusting the level of the tray to keep the tea from not spilling over the edge of the cups and never taking your eyes off the moving material.
Once you have gathered enough glass onto your rod then other things can happen – pulling, blowing, shaping. One of the ways you shape glass is by taking a thick pile of very wet newspaper about A5 size and an inch thick (so lots of layers); using this as a shield you can with your hand cup the glass to shape as it turns. It is the moment when you almost feel you are touching the hot glass in your hands – pretty amazing.
Blowing glass is another way of shaping. You blow down the metal rod to push air into the ball of molten glass and like blowing up a balloon, after an initial hard exhale the glass begins to expand. Of course being at the other end of the rod you cannot see if the air you are pushing out is creating a bubble or not, so you need another person at the other end of the pipe to say STOP when you have blown enough air into the molten glass ball. If you blow for too long on one gather you are in danger of bursting your glass bubble.
My experience of working with glass was mind changing as far as material experience. I have never worked with a material that I have had so much respect for – a kind of alchemy was taking place in front of me and I was really taken a back. Also the idea of handling but not directly – feeling the materials through tools and other materials and feeling/understanding through visual interpretation. It was totally exhilarating, scary, exciting and quite frankly mind blowing – mind blowing glass blowing…..
22nd June, 2017
On a holiday to Italy, me and my partner Mark rented a small cottage and every time we entered through the front door, usually when returning from the local market carrying piles of fresh fruit and veg, Mark would get his rucksack strap caught on the door handle as he entered the house, this was due to the fact that when the door was pushed open it got stuck halfway due to catching on the uneven tiled floor and therefore making the entrance much narrower, and consequently Mark’s rucksack strap getting caught as he miscalculated the width of the doorway.
With this particular material encounter I am less interested in why it happened – the door height and floor imperfections, but the affects the incident of loose strap catching the handle had on me and Mark in that moment. The primary affect being that it yanked Mark back into the doorway when it got caught, making him agitated and surprised, while it made me laugh, partly due to the fact that it happened everyday, which amused me as I thought after the second time Mark would have adjusted his body position so that there was enough room for him and the bag to enter without catching the handle, and his predictable reaction – how many times can a person be surprised at a predicted incident! Also, when you put one of the straps over your arm while leaving the other to dangle, that functionless loop becomes a hazard waiting to happen! Quite a big loop for catching on things! The design of a rucksack is of course to loop both straps around each arm making it comfortable to carry heavy weights, with equal distribution across the back of the rucksack bearer. When it is used correctly it is a brilliant device, and when back-packing in my twenties with a lot of stuff crammed into a very large rucksack it was amazing how much weight I could lift using this clever object. But when used incorrectly, such as to loop a single strap around one arm it was massively less comfortable and affective.
The upper back of a human can take a lot of weight if the weight is placed high enough on the body, if on the other hand the weight is too low where the back is weaker it can be very painful when carrying a rucksack around for hours. When you see people carrying large weights on their heads (very high up on the body) – such as what I witnessed when I was traveling through Africa – women carrying enormous loads wrapped up in fabric balanced on top of their heads. You can see how when the weight is placed on the top of the body it can take much more weight than lower down the body, and also it is about having the weight central to the body axis so that the head is in the strongest position in relation to the spine, the weight being equally distributed throughout the entire body frame, although you have to build up some strength in your neck if you are going to carry the kind of weights I saw woman carrying in Tanzania.
As we move around we are constantly making spatial decisions so not to bump into things, so that when we do catch/touch/bump into something it often comes as a bit of a shock, as if when we do collide we are annoyed with ourselves for failing to make the right spatial calculations to navigate our way forwards without a collision. I think this annoyance we have with ourselves, (like Mark’s frustration with his rucksack strap on the door handle), is a constant battle, tease and often comedy moment for those watching on, and it happens to me on a daily basis.
Things I get caught up with.
1. When putting my knickers on in the morning and missing the leg hole. This can be a disaster if I loose my balance completely and end up falling over, bouncing off the surrounding furniture.
2. Trying to retrieve items from my handbag. A) Not being able to find them, then as I pull items out they drag other things with them which then jump out of my bag, such as a pen or more private embarrassing items! Which are then catapulted across the room in front of everyone. B) Items getting caught around other things as I lift them out my bag, e.g. my wallet getting entangled around the canvas bag handles which I always carry with me for impromptu grocery buying.
3. My hair getting trapped between my shoulder bag strap and my shoulder, and then pulling my hair free without removing the strap, leaving trapped hair lodged under the strap, wrenched from my scalp. (It is surprising the amount of times I have done this that I am not semi bold on the right hand side of my head.)
4. Zips getting caught up with surrounding garment fabric threads, and more painfully – skin and body hair – Ouch…
11th May, 2017
Where YOU are sitting: amongst books – SMELL
Smell is a fascinating thing, it can take you right back to a single moment in the past and unlock a memory in its purest form. I would say that smell, equal to sound but more than vision and touch has the ability to do this. Perhaps this is because sound and smell literally penetrate the body, seeping in through openings and portals through the outer layers to mingle amongst our organs, whereas when we look with our eyes we are essentially taking an image like a camera and translating the information, a process of recording and sophisticated editing between eyes and brain. The eyes when looking at a scene are registering only a selection of what is fully there in that moment before sending information to the grey matter (our brain), whereas sounds and smells hit us directly and without selection, entering our body unexpectedly to bombard the brain with information with little or almost no editing. It is easier to close our eyes or revert our gaze, refrain from touching things around us, than to close our noses or seal up our ears as we travel through our tactile, visual, smelly and noisy material environment. Smell and sound can recreate exact experiences we had when we heard or smelt something in our past – linking the gap between the present and the past with extraordinary clarity. Also, on a scientific level I found out recently that the area of the brain that responds to and processes smells, and the part that deals with memory are very close together.
I picked up a book the other day and on opening it and smelling the pages I was immediately catapulted back to the moment when I was a child reading a book from the ‘Janet and John’ series. If you were a child growing up in the UK in the 70’s you will know what I am talking about! (I would like to mention at this point that I am referring to a particular book/page smell, not to be confused with a generic book smell that we can all locate in our set of favourite memory odours along with – freshly cut grass, roasted coffee beans and baking bread.) This smell is unique because of particular paper, glue and ink used combined with the age of the book and its history – where it has been placed in proximity to other objects and materials, picking up other smells. Similarly, if I was to describe the smell of cut grass in my mums garden in August last year, it would be different to the grass cut smell in September in my old house in Stoke Newington 6 years ago. The details are important.
This series of books was a learning tool for primary school children – one step closer to reading fluently! This particular ‘Janet and John’ book I did not particularly like because at the age of 7 I found it very difficult to read particularly out aloud as my nerves would literally paralyse me so I was unable to get the words out. I have awkward memories of being forced to read out aloud by my teacher at school and my mum at home from this particular book. The more these well intentioned facilitators tried to guide me with their constant interruptions of corrections the harder it became for me to do the task, the activity usually ending up with me in tears and then unable to read through my blurry wet vision. Ironically however, I also really liked this book but as an object, the blood orange coloured textured flexible canvas cover, and the pictures inside of Janet and John engaged in simple activities, such as filling a bucket of water, buying groceries …… God knows why I found it interesting, when I think back to it now it was a very basic and unimaginative book. Perhaps it was the way the pictures were drawn and painted that attracted me, the use of simple mark making to outline the figures, objects and animals on the page with primary colours filling in the shapes, and the way the text skirted around the images, so that the words and sentences made shapes of their own on the paper.
Recently I smelt a book, one that I picked up in a library (I can’t remember which book it was now, but it definitely was not a children’s book – it was a small paperback of some sort). I was immediately transported back to those childhood book moments wrapped up in all my mixed emotions, and an immense feeling of nostalgia and longing to be aged 7 again. I don’t have the book anymore – the ‘Janet and John’ book – It might be in the attic of my parents house and I suppose I could try and find it, but I’m sure it will not smell the same anymore, and I’m pretty sure if I handled it, it would not be that interesting an object, so better as a memory – even thought the memory is a mixture of good and bad feelings! I’m also not in the library anymore, but sitting in my studio writing about this experience, but I still can hold onto the strong memory of that particular booky page smell that linked me to my long ago booky page smell encounter – an example of where memories can trigger other memories. Maybe if I was in a bookshop right now or in a library like you are, smelling a book; having written this piece of text; I might simultaneously have memories of the ‘Janet and John’ book and the book in the library. I can’t describe the smell or recreate it, but I know the experience and feeling of that smell, as clearly as I am looking at the iPad screen I am writing on right now. But, I can only have the genuine experience if I am actually holding a book and smelling it – a memory of an experience and an actual ‘in the moment’ experience are different things. Also, I think it is easier to conjure up an image of a memory in your head than it is to conjure up a smell memory.
Can you remember a smell that has left a strong impression on you, and have you found it again? Maybe it was a material you handled as a child, food you ate at home or school, a room you lived in or visited. Maybe there is a memory trigger for you in this library right now.
Sited in Dalston CLR James Library, London.
4th April, 2017
Where YOU are sitting – around the big Appestat table.
Humans move and we watch them from our own moving position. We rarely physically experience another person’s body movements through actual human contact, apart from those closest to us – hugging, holding, leaning into and lying up against. Or do we? I am interested in the once removed physical interactions we have through touch, when we are recipient to another persons movements via some kind of interface – object, material…. These interfaces (stuff that two or more people are in physical contact with at the same time) – tables, chairs, flooring can exaggerate and heighten or diffuser and softener our direct experiences of others physical movements.
The other day I was in my favourite café sat at their large table, the kind you might find in a kitchen in an old farmhouse, where families gather for meals and conversation. I believe the idea of the café owner Anneka is to make the environment feel homely having a number of people sat around the same table, so that we might be encouraged to communicate with one another – not something that is promoted in your average café – where small segregated tables and uncomfortable chairs inhibit interaction with other café dwellers. I enjoy this ‘all round the table’ arrangement as you often end up sitting close to others and yet you can still retain your own personal space, a closeness that is comforting but not imposing or confrontational. The table is a bit wobbly, so depending on whom else is sat around it, the table moves in response to each occupant’s body movements. It is usually when two or more people sit down together that the table becomes animated and vibrates the most, as a result of their interactive movements while they talk to each other. When I feel these vibrations and tremors from where I am sat, I indirectly become part of their conversation, sandwiched between the two talking bodies, as the movement is right with me in my arms connected via the table and my iPad as I write. The table’s shifting activity is unique to the individual generating them, and mirrors the conversation they are having, the emotional delivery of their words, the gestures that go with their sentences which are expressed through the actions of their upper body that is connected to the table – hands and arms colliding with the wooden structure, synchronised to the staccato of projected words.
On this particular day I recall vividly this experience, as the table was vibrating more than usual. A woman at the other end of the table was getting incredibly animated, and was expressing herself physically as well as verbally. I was also able to listen to parts of the conversation and became aware that the vibration I was receiving through my wooden transmitter was more exaggerated than the words being spoken. What I mean is that the table was being shuddered, shacked and banged more dramatically than what I understood of the words being spoken, it was as if this individual found it more affective to communicate through their body actions and gestures than with words and sentences. Perhaps they were compensating for their limited and restrained capacity of verbal language, and the body with fewer inhibitions was stepping in to express what they really felt!
The thing is, after getting over the initial annoyance of my computer bouncing around as it leant against the tabletop edge, I started to ‘go with’ the table’s movement….. really trying to connect to this persons language through this particular material engagement (table – wood behavior). It was as if I was actually touching this total stranger, and connecting with them personally. It made me think about whether I, who was sat at the other end of the table, understood the conversations better than the person they were talking to, that I understood the intentionality behind the words being spoken. The direct recipient of the conversation was listening to what that person was saying and may or may not have acknowledged the moving table, whereas I was feeling and listening to the table’s movements, (human body clashing with wood) foremost with the verbal conversation as secondary to my experience.
What is interesting about this is whether our bodily movements express more honestly and perhaps more directly than our use of language when we communicate with one another. Maybe the body is less likely to want or be able to restrain and disguise how we feel, whereas our use of constructed words and sentences we are more in control of. Or is our bodily actions a direct expression of what we are saying and therefore it is futile to separate body and language?
It is important to pay attention to how others physically move when we are talking and listening to them, as this can reveal more than what is being verbally communicated. I also wonder in a world where we rarely physically touch others – strangers (unless of course you are in the industry of touching – masseur, dentist, doctor etc.) that the mediated touch is something we should engage with more, the vibrating apparatus when two strangers are holding/touching at the same time – handrail on a bus, table in a cafe, arm rest on a train…. Also the importance of communicating in ‘real’ physical space, apposed to email, Snapchat, Facebook, phone…. To be able to read the physical and visual signals while we communicate with one another, those subtle body expressions that can reveal so much more than words alone. Humans are sociable animals and need human contact. I’m sure the reason why I like to sit around the large table in my favourite café (apart from the fact they make the best coffee) even when I don’t speak to my neighbour, is that it fulfils a need ‘to feel/touch’ others, mediated touch, actual touch or just visual touch.
Sited in Appestat, Islington, London.
26th March 2017
A stack is a more or less orderly pile or heap. To make a stack is different to building a stack!? When you place things on top of other things to make a pile you have to consider what is below in order to build the stack up to increase its height.
In my fascination to find the difference in building a stack – one where I stacked things on top of each other vertically, placing each part on top of the part below to make a tall stack, and one where I made it horizontally and then stood it upright (vertically) to make a stack. When they are standing vertically they are both stacks, but one is a true stack and the other a fake stack. The word stack suggests an action to stack, which is why my horizontally constructed stack I am tentative to call a stack! Not only do these two stacks appear distinct they also behave uniquely and were incredibly different to make.
Building my stack. Using silicon-based plastic, I made with my hands a small block shape about the size of a standard matchbox. The material is malleable and a little sticky so once I had placed my first block on the floor I made my second block and added this on top of the first block applying a little pressure from above to stick them together. I carried on making similar size blocks and sticking each new one to the one below so my stack would grow up off the floor. The material I was using was fairly flexible, a bit like plasticine but a bit more bouncy so when I got to about 30cm high the stack wanted to bend and fall over. So once I had built a 30cm stack, I left it to dry over night and then continued to build the next section on top. As I built my stack I could see each block I added was accommodating the block/s below. What I mean by this is that my stack did not look orderly and neat, but bent left and right, as I was constantly adapting the stack to maintain its balance so it would stay standing up. Also, as I added each block I pressed down on it a little to stick it to the one below and by doing this I was also pressing down on the blocks below that one, which meant that the bottom blocks were getting more squashed and distorted as I built upwards. Once I got to about 75cm high I knew I was pushing my luck to make the stack any taller. It is amazing when you are stacking stuff that your hands and brain are constantly calculating how to keep the object straight and upright so not to fall over. My brain visually calculating width to height ratio probabilities, based on experience of stacking other stuff, the experience of making this stack and my previous knowledge of using this material, and my hands sensitively feeling for the point at which the material was no longer stable and would not stay straight enough to stay upright. I spent a long time sitting on the floor anticipating the stack to fall over, and many times it did catching it as it fell, and then placed it upright again pushing in from the sides with my hands the still supple plastic form to straighten it up again. There was a point when the material became tacky and hence more stable as it dried out, and I felt I could leave it and it would not fall over. It has been standing in my studio now for 3 weeks and has not fallen. Also I have picked it up and moved it around and it pretty much stays in its upright position wherever I place it, as long as the floor is relatively flat. I’m saying this, as my studio floor is not always!
Making (and faking) my stack – I did after building/stacking my stack…. I did this second stack to find out if it was easier to make a stack horizontally and then stand it up rather than making it vertically as in the first one. You could say this is not a stack but just appears as one! So what I did is take each of my individually hand made plastic shaped cubes and laid them one by one along a flat surface (table top), butting them up to each other to stick them in a long line. This method meant that I could make a very straight and ordered line of cubes in order to make a solid long shape. Once I got my row of cubes to the same length as the one that was standing up on my studio floor (my building stack) I left it to dry over a few days before attempting to stand it up. I knew it would not stand up at the first attempt as the base was probably not flat enough and at the right angle, so after a lot of cutting and shaving to make as good as I could I tried standing it up – it took many attempts of standing and watching which way it wanted to fall and then shaving a bit off the side of the base opposite to the direction of its falling direction. Well thinking that I had my base just right and flat it stood there on the floor next to my building stack (same height) for a minute or two, but then would fall over. Over a period of a day I stood it up again and again thinking that it would stay upright then after 2-10 minutes it fell over again and again and again…… I even tried cheating a bit by threading some wire up through the form to stop it flexing so much – causing it to fall, but that did not work either. Interesting that visually the made stack apposed to the building stack looked more stable and less likely to fall and yet it was the other away around.
My conclusion – I stood for a long time holding gently both the tops of the stacks slightly swaying them a little to feel how they moved. The building stack felt very firm and there seemed to me little flexibility between each stuck block (that made up the stack), and yet the made stack there was a lot more flexibility between each block, so the reason why it tended to fall over some minutes after I stood it up was that if there was any slight movement between two next door stuck together blocks this would slowly put more strain on the block join below and so on and eventually bend enough to pull the whole stack down in the direction of the bend. What I learnt from this was that if you make something in the position/orientation in which it will be permanently placed then it is more likely to hold that position and be strong in that position, whereas if you make something oriented one way (e.g. horizontally) and then move it to be orientated another way (vertically), such as with my made stack then the form is less likely to work, as the material making up the stack has been asked to alter its original behavior from when it was made. When the stack was lying down on the table it made a very strong horizontal line doing as much as it needed to do to be that horizontal line I had placed it in, but when stood up it was not strong enough to hold itself up right and hence kept falling over. Whereas the built stack that was made vertically – bedding down in that position as it was built up block by block, section by section and dried ‘in’ its stable position. It was as if the material had found its natural place and there it remained stable, whereas the made stack was being forced into a new position and did not know how to behave anymore, the memory of the material from when it was made captured inside the form. Strange though – after a few days I was able to find a position where my made stack did not fall down, it was as if the material when given the time to adapt and settle into its new vertical position could now behave as a vertical object and not fall down as often! However it has not adapted totally – I’m still waiting for it never to fall over!
I have to say this really brings me back to the whole ‘wall’ thing – which I mentioned earlier that it is a very different thing to make a brick wall vertically and then attach that to the side of a building than making a wall brick by brick from the bottom upwards. (See ‘Stuff and Architecture’ Part 1) In fact making something flat then placing it upright (horizontal to vertical) is a totally different process and which creates very different result to making something vertical vertically.
13th March 2017
Sounds and Smells
When we touch objects we are also listening to them. The sound of an object/material can tell us a lot about their internal structure strength and stability. I used to work in stone, large-scale sculptures using all different types – limestone, granite, sandstone and marble. From choosing my stone blocks in the quarry to working with this hard stuff in my studio I was always listening to the material to acquire knowledge to help me work with it. Every strike of the mallet onto the head of the chisel gave me specific audio information, such as locating the weakness and strength in the material. In order to work affectively with stone you either use the weakness of the material to break the stone away, or avoid the weakness to maintain the mass and the shape. So listening to the stone was essential.
When you split stone (to divide into parts) you drill minimum 20mm diameter holes about 5 inches apart in a line where you want the stone to split, and then you apply plugs and feathers into the holes – two feathers per hole of which you then place a plug between. You then start tapping with a hammer each plug which forces the feathers to open up, applying pressure to the stone and eventually splitting it. As you tap each plug along the line of plugs and feathers the stone makes a ringing sound, created by the metal vibrating within the tight holes, then the sound becomes more hollow and deadened, as the metal no longer is contained within a tight hole, but one that is opening and breaking up, so you tap other pugs some more to get the sound to resonate the same in each. It is all a matter of getting the plug and feathers to work at the same pace, to achieve a clean break along the plugs. Eventually a crack will appear, which is the satisfying bit! And then you tap the plugs along your line to extend the crack in a controlled way. The plugs now sit deep between the feathers, the two feathers then loosen, some of the plugs and feathers falling through the stone and landing on the concrete floor below to produce another type of ringing sound. The stone should now be in two parts, and if according to plan split perfectly between the plug holes and not sheared off in an unpredictable direction, which can happen when working with this energized material.
Smell also plays a part in this process. Once you open the stone you release the trapped air/gases that are within the mass. I love thinking about these captured ancient atmospheres collected when the stone was forming, thousand year old odours, caused by plants and animal life trapped within layers of compacted earth, thrown up from the earths core during a volcanic eruption, or built up on the sea-bed. When working in this incredibly ‘old’ material I often found myself getting up very close to the stone to smell the aroma of its hidden past. To think that at that moment of me cutting into the stone I was releasing gas that was created many years ago. It is a moment of wonder to be the person to witness this fleeting release of ancient smells into the present atmosphere.
The sounds generated by a material help us to gather knowledge about its properties. I often find myself tapping objects to understand them better. Such as a porcelain bowl – if you tap all over its entire surface you can hear how the sound changes. Where it is thin the sounds is very different to where the material is thicker. It is a clever way of gathering knowledge about a object when you cannot entirely visually explore it – such as not being able to see inside an object, so by tapping it you can ascertain where the walls of the objects are thin and where they are thicker, where it is hollow or solid, where it is damaged (a cracked porcelain object generates very particular sounds!) Thin stuff and thick stuff sound different, so to does short and long stuff. By tapping an object with your finger or with a tool (metal tools work best) you can reveal its inner structure, the fibers, molecules, crystals how they are working inside the material, whether they are strong or weak, soft or hard, fixed or changeable.
I have recently being researching the science and physics of materials to help me to understand better how materials behave. Two books I have come across that explore this territory in an accessible and yet incredibly intelligent way are: ‘Storm in a Teacup. The Physics of Everyday Life.’ By Helen Czerski and ‘Reality is Not What it Seems. The Journey to Quantum Gravity’ by Carlo Rovelli.
3rd February 2017
Inside and Outside
Our interaction with objects and material is mostly a surface experience. Walking on stone paving, not entering the stone and its internal gases, holding a metal fork, but not entering the molecule structures of irons and chemicals locked inside. However, we do enter fluids and malleable materials more easily, such as water, wet clay, and food – vegetables, fruit, meat, and cheese as we cut, grate and crush them. It is mostly the hard stuff we merely skate, glide, and stroke across the surface. And it is these hard surfaces we most rely on to construct our environmental infrastructure – buildings, roads, machines and vehicles etc, for the obvious reason that they are stable and strong.
So perhaps we should think, imagine what is behind these hard surfaces that surround us – to think about the materials we are touching – not just the outer coat but also the inner matter and workings.
You can tell a lot when touching a surface to ascertain what is inside. I had a funny experience recently in a supermarket in Sicily in Italy. My partner asked me to find an aubergine. He had looked thoroughly through the fresh fruit and vegetable section and could not find one, which was very odd considering Sicilians use a lot of aubergines in their cooking. I then went to look and could not see one either. Being a little bored as Mark waited to be served at the meat and cheese counter I lingered again in the vegetable area focusing on a pale round vegetable about the size of a small melon, it was white and pale green, with a slight hint of purple around the stalk, a vegetable I did not know, and yet when I picked it up, I immediately knew it was an aubergine. It looked nothing like the dark purple long bulbous shape vegetable I was familiar with, but it felt exactly like an aubergine. When you handle an aubergine it has a very particular tactility, like no other vegetable I have come across – firm but also spongy, a bit like a natural sponge that has gone hard when dried out, but still enough give to feel its springy quality, and wrapped in a skin of rubbery squeakiness, like a rubber ball. On handling it I could imagine what it looked like inside, from my previous aubergine cooking experiences.
It proved to me the necessity to handle stuff to really understand what I was encountering and that appearances can be extremely deceptive.
Often the outer surfaces of living things is different to the inside, a design mechanism to protect what is inside, like the skin of a tomatoes or the skin and hair of an animal, both protecting the flesh inside. These things have a different material on the outside to that of the inside, like our own bodies, the skin wrapped around, muscle, bone, and veins. Whereas other things the outside material can be the same as what is inside, such as a pebble on the beach or a carrot, but by being exposed to the air, earth and other elements has become slightly harder on the outside and more than often different in appearance. It all seems to come down to protection, where a living thing needs to be protected, it creates or acquires a tougher skin, where as a manmade object – inanimate object such as a sawn piece of wood or a building brick, does not have a skin to protect its inner stuffness. Maybe this is because it is strong and durable right to its core, but more likely it has no mechanism to build a protective skin. Of course we design and make all sorts of skins to protect objects we own – from phones and computers covers to clothes, and these in themselves have an inner and outer materiality.
Whether it is a brick or an aubergine, there will always be an outer experience and an inner one, that we may or may not access, unless we choose to interact with it, which might mean breaking or destroying it to do so…..
6th January 2017
Stuff and Architecture.
The word Stuff is both a noun and a verb – the stuff that is material and matter, and the action of stuffing to fill and form objects. Are the objects that have been designed on a flat digital screen insensitive to the materials that are used to fill/stuff these digital ideas in becoming actual objects in real space? Enormous amounts of objects are designed on computer screens which in order to become actual objects in the world – take matter and stuff it inside the designs, often irrespective of what the form or the material can do or requires.
In digital software there are samples of materials shown as surface texture which can be digitally and virtually wrapped around designed objects and architecture on the screen to give the designer an idea of how the thing he/she is designing will appear once manufactured in a given material. Well, the appearance of a material or surface of a material does not say much about how the object/building in that chosen material will behave when it is built. So, the designer has to think about both the properties of the material chosen to use and whether they can function in a building and what it will look like. It seems to me some things/objects produced lean more towards the requirement and fulfillment of the experience of the screen than the requirement of the physical object to be used in real space. Let me explain – On visiting Zaha Hadid extension at the Serpentine Gallery in London when it first opened, while sitting in the restaurant eating my over expensive salad, the swooping organic architecture over and around me seemed to have one foot still firmly in the computer and digital space, and was not totally occupying the space I was in, this was evidenced in the clunky way the pillars met the ground, a gap appearing between pillar and floor breaking up the continuous flow and it was definitely not swooping..! A feature perhaps less relevant on the screen, but while I sat by this pillar staring at the floor I was so very disappointed by the lack of thought given to how this column met the ground, and considering how chairs and tables where pushed so close to the pillars, I’m sure others would come into contact with this connecting point and have similar thoughts. The digital form, the surface affect had overridden the material, the substance, and the matter – revealing a gap between design and production.
Have a good look at a new building and decide for yourself how much of it was designed in the ‘real’ and how much on the computer screen.
Many years ago buildings evolved and changed while they were being built, as the materials being used dictated how they would be applied, builders and architects working closely solving problems as they went along in working out the best way to proceed. There was a time when builder and architect were the same profession. You can see such decision making in old churches where an extra pillar or buttress was added creating a less symmetrical structure and revealing a trace of problem solving and a more organic approach – evidence of decisions being made as the building went up, accommodating new demands as they arose. Obviously the technology we have available today means we can predict future problems and through various advanced digital software can calculate the strength of structures and materials. However the relationship between architects/designers and builders could have gone too far the other way, to a point that builders have little or no investment in the buildings they are constructing, caring very little about the vision of the whole building and from my experience cutting corners with detail. I’m not talking about lack of standards, but a lack of uniformed vision and concern for the whole, connecting one material, object, architectural feature with another fluidly, with a vision that relates to the original design but goes beyond the screen to the real, evolving as it grows in actual space .
I often look at buildings going up in London – they seem to have landed like space ships, as if they could take off as quickly as they docked. They do not grow out of the ground, but are constructed and hover in space (which is interesting in itself!) Frames and structures go up and lastly sections of cladding added to the outside to create surfaces, that can ‘look like’ brick, solid stone, ceramics and so on, and yet this illusion is only sometimes millimeters thick rather than the actual building material thickness! – I’m sure a good strategy to build things quickly and more economically. You may say what is the difference; it looks the same – but look carefully. For example, a slab of clad replica brick constructed like a jigsaw in a factory away from the building site appears very different to a brick wall built ‘with’ actual bricks on site, from the bottom upwards by a bricklayer. The first is a form stuffed with bricks and the second is built brick. The brick in the second behaves like brick traditionally does, each brick responsive to the cement and brick layer below and on top, and as the builder constructs the wall this way he/she is making decisions in response to the material the brick is made of and materials in proximity, whereas the first set of bricks, made in a factory as large cladded sections was probably constructed horizontally, rather than vertically. These large slabs of brick formations are then attached and hung to the building facades, looking all the same, each a replica of the other panel of bricks, the cement between the bricks uncompressed by the lack of weight from the layer of bricks being placed on top.
So, if you look carefully at such buildings – there is a brick wall, but not one that sits on the ground but floats in the space defined by the digital environment rather than the physical one. One is probably no better than the other – just different. So, when you encounter contemporary urban architecture explore the brickwork and the way the material has been put together, as it will reveal a lot about the journey of design to realization, and the tools that have been used.