Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Babel Beachcombing

Last week I was at the Babel Working Group meeting in Santa Barbara where I participated in an experimental "Beachcombing" panel organized by Lara Farina.  This is Lara's description of the project:
Participants in this panel have a scattered assortment of fragments of the medieval past to sort through. The tide has washed some of this flotsam and jetsam in to the site at Omeka, where shell collectors, treasure-hunters, and those just out for a stroll will find it littering the beach. They might pick some things up, sort them into displays, use them in making sandcastles or words scratched out with a stick, take them home, or throw them back. They might leave some of the things they brought with them behind--as a present to the sea or as unwanted junk. 
Participants in the panel worked (mostly) with the "flotsam and jetsam" collection of objects that Lara had assembled in the Omeka site cited above to create online exhibits.  Because of some technical difficulties, though, most of our work ended up at a second Omeka site provided by Hyperrhiz.  My exhibit is the one entitled "Sand, Sea, Sky" and the underlying collections are primarily Lara's original "Low Tide" and the additional items I added in "Shells and Badges."  Below is the text thaat I presented as part of the conference panel.

In creating my final, finished, exhibit for this project I decided to begin by taking Lara’s metaphor of beachcombing as seriously as possible and this meant working rather intuitively; because in my experience of beachcombing I typically collect things without a clear intention or motivation or outcome in mind.  Instead I pick up whatever appeals to me, for whatever reason, and without much reflection on those reasons.  And so I picked one item from our collective “shore” collection each day over six days, picking whatever appealed to me on that particular day, and creating a page in the exhibit for it.  However, in this case I did take a next step of reflecting in writing on why I picked that particular item, on what specific appeal it had for me: this writing forms the first paragraph on each page in the exhibit itself.   And the title of each page names its item’s specific appeal: Making, Difficulty, In/Complete, Wearing/Being, Intimacy, and Energy.
To stay as close as possible to the beachcombing metaphor, I then chose to pair the items that I had selected for the exhibit with a number of actual beachcombed objects, stones and shells that I had gathered on a trip to the Oregon coast several years ago.   I picked a stone or shell to pair with each item in the exhibit by trying to match the specific appeal that I had identified for that item with a similar quality in the beachcombed object: my reflections on that match form the second paragraph on each exhibit page.  Then I pressed the metaphor of beachcombing in the direction that Lara had set for us as a way of thinking about our relationships to the past.  I considered how the specific appeal I had identified for each exhibit item, the quality that I had then identified for the shell or stone, might also appear in relationships to the past; sometimes thinking specifically about my own work on medieval art and sometimes more broadly.   This work forms the third and last paragraph on each exhibit page.
Finally, for some reason, after that trip to the Oregon coast, I had assembled my beachcombed stones and shells into a landscape and photographed it: this is the image that appears on the Introduction page for the exhibit.  I decided to allow this image to dictate the structure of the final exhibit, taking the location of each beachcombed shell or stone in the landscape as determining its page’s place in the exhibit as a whole.   And this also then established the sections for the exhibit and their order, moving from foreground to background as Sand, Sea, and Sky.
Rather than talking through the exhibit further at this point, because you can of course look at it for yourselves – and I hope that you will – I instead want to take some time to reflect on my process of putting it together.  I will admit that this was a difficult project for me to work on: I put off getting started on it and I had several false starts before I finally came up with what I have here.  The issue was that I initially wanted to have a clear idea of what the outcome of my work, the final exhibit, was going to look like before I started to do any work on it.  And I didn’t have an idea so I didn’t get started.  And then I had a couple of ideas, but I wasn’t satisfied with any of them, and so I would get started on something sort of half-heartedly and then would give up on it and delete what I had done.  This has a lot to do with my tendencies towards anxiety and depression.  The uncertainty of not-knowing what the final outcome of something is going to be can make me very anxious and then can get in the way of me doing it at all.  Especially since I tend to try to jump ahead and imagine an outcome, but I often imagine negative outcomes, and that further discourages me from doing the work.  I don’t imagine that these are unique feelings, my understanding is that they are actually pretty typical of structures of anxiety and depression, and I’m sure I’m not the only person here who struggles with those issues.   
The key for me in finally getting past all of that for this project was shifting my attention from the end product to the process that I was engaged in.  And this is where I really found Lara’s beachcombing metaphor to be helpful; because when I think of beachcombing it’s typically a process that doesn’t have an end product.   On this trip to the Oregon coast, for example, my sister-in-law was also picking things up on the beach but I believe she left all of hers behind because she didn’t really know what she would do with them.  I brought my objects back to Cleveland with me and made this photograph with them, but then they ended up in this container of rocks that I use for drainage for potted plants, and I had to dig them out for this project.  The experience of working on the project, then, has me thinking about the tension between product and process; about our tendency to over-value product and devalue process, which has to do with these mental structures, but I think is also exacerbated by our current working environment and the pressure we all feel to be productive in order to prove our worth to our institutions as well as ourselves; and finally it has me thinking about ways of resisting that tendency and coming to value process itself.