Wednesday, 17 May 2017

TVAD Visiting Researcher 2016-2017: Afterthoughts

Rebecca Houze, Ph.D
Professor of Art and Design History
Northern Illinois University

As the academic year draws to a close with the usual frenzy of final projects and spring critiques, I have been reflecting on my travels over the past several months as a Visiting Researcher for the TVAD (Theorizing Visual Art and Design) research group, which is hosted by the University of Hertfordshire’s School of Creative Arts. It was enriching this year to meet so many energetic students and faculty in a wide range of disciplines, from contemporary craft to architecture, and from graphic and product design to heritage studies.

In the autumn term, October 2016, I had the opportunity to meet with students in Antje Illner’s contemporary craft seminar. I presented there a short talk on Emilie Bach (1840-1890), founder of the Imperial-Royal School for Art Embroidery in Vienna in 1874. Bach was very active in the Austrian reform of design education in the last part of the nineteenth century, and sought to revive historical needlework patterns from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. She advocated for craftsmanship, quality, and creativity in the face of industrialization, and believed that education was the key to cultivating taste. The students in the seminar asked questions that led me to explore Bach’s personal and professional circumstances in more detail in preparation for a paper on this topic. I presented it at the conference, "Design Discourse: Jewish Contributions to Viennese Modernism," at the MAK—Museum of Applied Art in Vienna, organized last fall by Elana Shapira, Design Historian at the University of Applied Art in Vienna.

 "Corner and detached subject in blanket stitch," in Emilie Bach, New Patterns in Old Style 
(Dornach: Thérèse de Dillmont, 1890)

My TVAD lunch talk, “Textiles, Fashion, and Design Reform in Austria-Hungary Before the First World War: Principles of Dress,” presented highlights from my book of the same title (Ashgate, 2015). The book is the result of my research in the museums of applied art and ethnography in Vienna and Budapest over the past fifteen years. It argues that the modern movement in Vienna was energized by an Austrian-Hungarian love of textiles and of dressing up at the end of the nineteenth century, which shaped museology, educational programs, and the history of art, as well as innovations in modern design. The conversation among students and faculty following the talk sparked hypotheses about the role of psychoanalysis and of architecture in that milieu, a reminder that “Vienna 1900” was a dynamic center of intellectual and artistic activity that continues to fascinate us today.

I also had the pleasure of speaking about my more recent book, New Mythologies in Design and Culture: Reading Signs and Symbols in the Visual Landscape (Bloomsbury 2016) with design students in School of Creative Arts Associate Dean Research Steven Adams’ design workshop, and with those who attended my evening Design Talk, as part of the series convened by Julian Lindley. This project took as its point of departure Roland Barthes’ familiar 1957 book, Mythologies, a collection of short, brilliant essays on French popular culture at that time. The essays in New Mythologies examine some our most potent popular symbols today, such as the Nike swoosh, the McDonald’s golden arches sign, and BP’s “Helios” logo, and urge readers to be critical, responsible producers and consumers of our contemporary designed world.

Parody of BP Logo designed by Laurent Hunziker, 2010. 
Winner of Popular Choice in the Greenpeace UK Rebrand BP Competition.

A highlight of my fall visit was meeting faculty and students in UH’s DHeritage program, and hearing the students’ presentations of their research in progress. The day-long symposium was particularly interesting to me as my own research has moved increasingly in the direction of heritage studies in the past several years. My current project looks at relationships between the built environment of world’s fairs and of new national parks in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in both Europe and America, where they were designed as powerful expressions of national identity.

As you might imagine, I came back to Chicago from my fall visit to UH consumed with new questions and ideas for future projects! It was thus a privilege to be able to return to the School of Creative Arts again in February 2017.

My visit to campus in the spring term continued conversations that had started the previous fall. It was a distinct pleasure, for example, to attend Grace Lees-Maffei’s lively Graphic Design & Illustration module, and to lead a “New Mythologies” workshop in which groups of students deconstructed familiar icons, such as the Beats headphones logo, the Pringles potato chip trademark, and the international accessibility (wheelchair) symbol. Eva Sopeoglou, with whom I share an interest in the ideas of nineteenth-century German architect and art historian Gottfried Semper, invited me to talk with her First-Year Interior Architecture students and doctoral student colleagues, who, in February, were in the midst of organizing an exhibition on urban revitalization in the historic train depot district of Old Hatfield. I shared with them a part of my current project on historic architecture and open-air museums of cultural heritage in the American southwest.

Hopi House, Grand Canyon, Arizona, designed by Mary Colter, 1904

That same week I attended two fascinating presentations: Artist Femke De Vries’ TVAD talk, “Dictionary Dressings,” and the 2017 Hertfordshire Association of Architects Annual Lecture, “Zaha Hadid Architects: Recent and Past Project,” gloriously illustrated and delivered by architect Jim Heverin. DeVries’ presentation derived from her installation and book of the same title, which is a creative exploration, indeed subversive reading, of textual clothing definitions. If a glove is a “covering of the hand,” for example, then a “glove,” she asserts, might logically be understood as a pocket or a bandage.

Most exciting was the opportunity to participate in UH’s History Department Conference at the seventeenth-century Cumberland Lodge. Staying in the gracious, elegantly appointed country house, which looks out on the green expanse of Windsor Great Park, gave the weekend a dream-like quality. The talks were challenging, the food was delicious, and the company was stimulating and entertaining. Among the most memorable talks I attended were John Styles’ address on the history of fashion, Ceri Houlbrook’s discovery of shoes hidden in the walls of historic homes, Bridget Long’s paper on needlework education for girls in the eighteenth century, and Emma Battell Lowman & Adam J Barker’s talk on writing Canadian history in the “settler colonial present.” Particularly moving was the screening of the powerful film by Tim Slade, The Destruction of Memory, based on the book of the same name by Robert Devan. The film traces the destruction of cultural artifacts and heritage sites as acts of war in several contexts, including in the ongoing war in Syria.

Windsor Great Park

Dorney Court

In addition to presenting and attending academic talks, workshopping papers in progress with members of the TVAD reading group, and making the acquaintance of new colleagues during both my fall and spring term visits, I also had the opportunity to see local sites and landmarks, including the Cathedral and Abbey Church of Saint Alban, the origins of which date to at least the mid fourth century, Letchworth and Welwyn Garden Cities, designed by visionary urban planner Ebenezer Howard in the early twentieth century, and the charming fifteenth-century Dorney Court in Buckinghamshire.

The Spirella Building, previously a factory for the progressive Spirella Corset Company, Letchworth Garden City, 1912

Ebenezer Howard medallion, Welwyn Garden City

Understanding history relies upon intellectual discourse, which often takes place at conferences and symposia—traditional physical meeting places for the exchange of ideas. With our many new technologies for communication today, international travel for such meetings may seem less necessary; however, the ambiguous space between individuals at a video conference simply cannot compare with the spontaneous conversation in the corridor, the lounge, or at the dinner table. I am grateful to the School of Creative Arts for inviting me to participate in its TVAD research group, a generous and inspiring commitment to fostering academic exchange.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Lyndall Phelps: Museology

In 1890, St. Albans public library held a Conversazione, an exhibition of curiosities that became the predecessor to St. Albans museum. With the museum now closed for renovation, artist Lyndall Phelps has joined with its curators to revive some of the original collection at locations around Hertfordshire, as part of a pop-up museum that also features her own work. On exhibition stands designed in collaboration with students at the University of Hertfordshire, Phelps' collection is touring local venues including the St. Albans Cathedral, The Maltings, St. Paul's Church Hall, and St. Julian's Church Hall, with a different selection of exhibits at each location.

Though her aim is partly to make the St. Albans' Museum collection available while the museum is closed, Phelps is also interested in reviving some of the missing objects that were on display in the 1890 exhibition. Working from a list of artefacts on display at the Conversazione, Phelps displays artefacts that remain in the museum's collection alongside objects that she has made and collected to fill gaps left by objects missing from the list. The artefacts are divided into four main categories - fine art, social history, archaeology, and natural history - all categories that were recognised in the original Conversazione collection.

All of the works that Phelps created herself were directly inspired by, but not always identical to, objects on the list. The list contains no images, and the written descriptions are short and sometimes vague. Phelps has taken advantage of this lack of detail by exercising her creativity, adhering to the description in part, but knowingly diverging from the likely form or design that the listed objects would have taken. Where the list describes fern specimens, she has traced the silhouettes of pressed plants in the Cambridge University botanical collection, and screen-printed them in gold. Where the list describes various cloth items, ranging from scarfs to bags, she has decided "to show the fabric rather than the object", and has framed a selection of fabric "representing other cultures", including sari silk and shibori dyed cloth.

Where the list describes "embroidery on perforated card",  Phelps has diverged from the European, floral patterns that would have most likely adorned the original cards, and instead opted to for abstract patterns, and has displayed the cards next to some tribal jewelry, also her own work. This decision arose from her desire to challenge herself. "Ethnographic pieces [like these] involve problem solving" and provide a welcome excuse to learn new craft skills.

Phelps views her role as curator, collector, and designer, as well as artist. "Because of the nature of the objects [on the list] it made more sense to collect them than to make them," she explains. There are a significant number of religious items on the list, and she felt that these might be best represented by collections of contemporary objects that reflect the continuation of established religious practices, including saints medals and reproduction Medieval pilgrim badges.

All of these artefacts are displayed on a stand of Phelps' own design, inspired by a collaboration with students on the Interior Architecture and Design programme at UH. It was particularly important for Phelps that the stand did not resemble a wall from the St. Albans Museum. She has avoided white, and, where possible, used voids and transparent materials so that the audience is encouraged to "see through" the stand to the environment in which it is sited. The display is modular, so that it can be reconfigured to fit different spaces. "I'm used to making work that is physically related to a site or context," she says, and hopes that the stand will feel integrated into each location. "I wanted it to feel like a display [that belongs] in each location, not like we had brought in a piece of the museum."

Where the exhibition features genuine artefacts from the museum collection, she has chosen to display them in archival boxes, "presented as they were stored". Working with the museum's curators she has become fascinated by how they concerned themselves primarily with the "structural quality" of the objects in their care. This approach has taught Phelps "to look at objects in a different way, not just as visual objects, but as structures" that must be supported and protected in very particular ways.

Housing the objects in protective cases and sleeves, Phelps aims to allow audiences an insight into how the objects are protected for storage and transit, illustrating the "hidden, background processes" of museology. The white foam, with recesses cut to match the shape of the objects that they protect, the labels and identification numbers that are normally hidden from view, and the ribbons that secure objects in place, are as important a part of Phelps' display as the artefacts themselves. Prints are unframed, so that the "scrappily cut" edges of the paper are visible, revealing "the honesty of the object". This, feels Phelps, is far more interesting than the "beautified" displays that are presented in the museum. These references carry through to Phelps' own works, which are mounted on card of the same grey colour as the museum's archival boxes.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Last call for 2017 applications for DHeritage!

Last call for 2017 applications for DHeritage, the Professional Doctorate in Heritage at the University of Hertfordshire! DHeritage is a unique professional doctorate for heritage professionals who wish to undertake original research related to their professional concerns, and to contribute knowledge and understanding of heritage, broadly defined. DHeritage is hosted by the Department of Humanities at the University of Hertfordshire, with contributions from staff working in History, Philosophy, Education, Creative Arts, Hertfordshire Business School and the University’s flagship Heritage Hub, among others. The doctorate is offered part-time and is delivered through campus-based workshops and online equivalents. The deadline for applications is Monday May 15, and interviews are scheduled for Wednesday 14 June.
Please circulate this opportunity to potential applicants in your network, thank you.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Round Table with Catherine Bertola and Rachel Rich

At a recent UHArts panel discussion, Catherine Bertola was joined in discussion by Rachel Rich, senior lecturer in history at Leeds Becket University. Bertola and Rich are currently benefitting from a Leverhulme Trust Artist in Residency award that has enabled them to share ideas related to the domestic interior. The panel discussion was an opportunity to examine Bertola's past and current work in relation to 19th Century cookbooks and domestic advice manuals, and for staff and students at the University of Hertfordshire to respond with their own questions and observations about Bertola's work.

Much of the discussion focused on the staging of domestic spaces, in their original, domestic use, and when preserved for display, as in the Bronte Parsonage Museum, where Bertola created a series of photographs entitled Residual Hauntings (2011). Bertola is critical the staging of historical spaces, noting the inauthenticity of the objects and decor that are often used in such staging, as well as the artificiality of preserving a space as if frozen in any one particular time. Rich draws parallels with the staging of domestic interiors in the 19th century, and the performance of hospitality that was advised by domestic advice literature of the time. Publications including Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management propagated the idea of the home as an "enterprise" that could be "run for the success of the family unit", and presented an impossible ideal against which Victorian women could measure the success or failure of their domestic activities.

Residual Hauntings, 2011
Rich relates some of Bertola's past works to the ideals advocated in these manuals, including the "act[ing] out of their leisure time as a job". Bertola's Killing Time (2011) shows the artist superimposed into photographs of domestic interiors, sipping from a teacup as if caught between domestic chores. Bertola's work with images of domestic interiors seems not to clearly differentiate between images of labour and leisure. It is interesting to consider Rich's reading of Bertola's work in relation to the writing of Erving Goffman. In his explorations of the “presentation of self in everyday life”, Goffman (1959, p. 69) identifies “backstage” events and locations, in which individuals engage in private activities in preparation for the everyday performance of self. The home is divided into spaces that are, to varying degrees, public or private. Bedrooms and bathrooms are distinctly private, drawing rooms more public, and hallways, Bertola notes, "transition between public space and private space". Rich observes that time spent in, and caring for, those domestic spaces is also divided into public and private time. "Backstage" activities that are the work of the domestic labourer are conducted in private, as a means of preparing for the public presentation of a space.

Killing Time, 2011
The preparation of Bertola's work has often involved private labour, in isolated spaces, leading up to the time of completion when the public are invited into the space. Working on After the Fact (2006), she necessarily worked alone, in an abandoned building, sweeping dust from the floor to recreate patterns from eighteenth-century wallpaper. As she swept, she recorded the sounds of her labour in an audio track that now exists as a public record of her "backstage" activities. For an earlier work, Scratching at the Surface (2001), she spent 2 weeks at the top of scaffolding, isolated from the street below, scratching through layers of paint on the exterior of a building in Newcastle upon Tyne. These private preparations are intentionally similar to the "backstage" labour that takes place in domestic spaces, incorporating sweeping, dusting and cleaning, and consciously isolating, drawing on the "idea of being trapped" that she associates with domestic labour. She develops a sense of ownership during her temporary inhabitation of these spaces, and must relinquish her ownership when the work is complete and the public come swarming into her erstwhile private space.

Scratching at the Surface, 2001

After the Fact, 2006
She has found that there is more privacy in the production of site-specific works than in galleries. Works produced for galleries, such as the work currently on display in the In and Out of Sight exhibition at the University of Hertfordshire, can require her private processes to be transformed into public performances. While creating her current work on the wall of the Art & Design gallery, Bertola was exposed to passing visitors, students and the other artists with whom she shares the exhibition. It is interesting to note that the subject of this work is a photograph of a private domestic space, made public through a photograph that has been published in a readily-available publication.
Bertola and Rich's conversation often turned to the subject of time. Many of Bertola's works have involved reviving old images, revealing surfaces lost to time, or bridging the gaps between periods. Bertola describes her work as "fleeting". Her site-specific work is necessarily temporary. It often has a "fragility", like the dust of After the Fact, that can be swept away. Rich describes her "heartbreak" at imagining how easily Bertola's work can be brushed away. She draws parallels with the domestic labour that can be undone so easily, as clean spaces gather more dirt, and "the entrapment of women" in the neverending cycle of domestic chores (a cycle that is referenced in Bertola's Round and Round, 2016, in which the artist is shown endlessly setting and unsettling a table). It was unusual for her to preserve her images by placing them in a frame, as she has done for Sad Bones (2013-14), giving them a permanence that is not often present in her work.

Preservation, and the effects of time, were foremost in her thoughts when Bertola created Everything and Nothing (2007) at the V&A. In this setting she became very aware of the rituals surrounding the presentation of collected artefacts, and the distinctions made between the labour of those who cared-for those artefacts, and those who cared for the museum's interior. She observed a hierarchy of cleaning, topped by the conservators responsible for cleaning the artefacts, skilled cleaners who are permitted to clean the plinths, and unskilled, "invisible" cleaners with responsibility for the floors. It is the unseen labour of the latter that is most directly referenced in Bertola's work, and that most fascinates Rich.

Everything and Nothing, 2007

Goffman, E. (1959), The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, New York: Anchor Books.