To accompany the ‘Making Things‘ exhibition at the Institute of Education, we held a seminar to discuss the relationship between practice and the doctoral form. I invited Emily F. Henderson to respond to my work:
How to offer a response to a protest-research installation without reducing the impact of the installation to protest or research? This was the challenge that I faced when Sean invited me to respond to their contribution to the group show put together by doctoral students in the Art, Design and Museology department at the UCL Institute of Education (see blog post 26 January 2015). To try to take Sean’s installation in the spirit in which it was created, I offered three types of response, one for each of the objects that made up the installation: the zine, the sound piece, the tea-towel. Each of these objects offered a different possibility for thinking about how protest and research can be intertwined in different forms.
In Sean’s blog post about the installation, they situated the work in two different spaces. The first space was Red House at Bexleyheath. Sean had offered to make a sound piece representing the voices of villagers discussing the nature of the relationship between May Morris and Mary Lobb – the sound piece was to be made without expectation of payment, and it was to be based on archive sources that Sean had put together. This intervention in the way in which ‘non-normative’ relationships are erased and/or caricatured in heritage sites was rejected and not included in the heritage site. This ultimately resulted in there being a floating sound piece, which existed in the world as a protest object with no site for protest. The sound piece found a site in the group show at the Institute of Education, flanked by a zine illustrating the story of Mary Lobb’s erasure – and Sean’s own erasure – from the heritage sites that present William Morris’ life and work. Accompanying the zine was a William Morris design tea-towel – the traditional heritage site gift-shop purchase – upon which Sean had written in large letters ‘JUSTICE FOR MARY LOBB’, as a twist on the protest banner form.
Sean had said that they were interested in how the installation would work in an ‘exhibition environment’, a ‘gallery space’. In the photo that Sean has taken of the installation, it looks very much as if the work is displayed in a gallery – and it was a gallery, but it was a gallery within an academic department within a university. My response to the installation was very situated in the space of the university – what was the effect on Sean’s work of it being displayed in a university, and what was the effect on the university?
My first response took inspiration from the zine that Sean had created – how could the form of the zine provoke an interpretation of the installation? The zine genre is defined by a deliberate DIY format, in which pictures and text – handwritten and typed – are combined in a collage and photocopied in black and white. Looking at Sean’s zine, I found myself wondering how Sean had decided which elements to ‘mess with’, and which images or text they would preserve, framed intact within the zine. The question of obedience came into my mind – obedience to research convention versus disobedience (which could be taken as obedience to protest convention). Sean’s installation was obediently situated in its designated corner within the temporary gallery space of the department – did situating it in this way contribute to the ‘fetishising’ of protest objects that Sean was concerned about?
Thinking about the sound piece helped me to respond to this question. The coming to rest of the sound piece in this institutional gallery space transported the installation out of its context. Listening to the gossiping voices took me out of the space and into an imagined heritage site, a heritage site which could only exist in the imagination. The misplaced, displaced sound piece points to the intangible site of Sean’s protest-research: the ‘site’ of the lives that have been invisibilised and caricatured in heritage properties. The sound piece represents the way in which heritage houses produce and normalise an image of heterosexual, cis-gendered existence as the norm of history – an image which leaves any other account dismissed as gossip. Not fetishised then – rather all-too-aware of its uprootedness, its enforced rootlessness.
And this brings me to the tea-towel: the layering of a twee gift tea-towel with a painted protest slogan. This is perhaps one way of seeing the layering of Sean’s installation, and the exhibition as a whole, onto the institutional context that held it. I noticed in entering the exhibition space that I was entering a different part of the university to the classrooms and social spaces I normally inhabit. This space did not have a single institutional logo or branding item visible. There were floor-to-ceiling prints of vintage-looking artists overlooking us, flicking projected images on a punky orange screen, a quilt of photographs draped over the centre of the room, a detailed journey in pictures taking us along one of the walls, and Sean’s hyper-visible tea-towel and protruding ledge bearing the zine and headphones. It was difficult to know where to stand or sit – each of the exhibits had us turning and moving, leaning on them and knocking into them. The room exposed us and our bodies, brought us into the room. It struck me that this was a room that could shift thinking, could disrupt obedient research practice: the exhibition fleetingly layered the tea-towel of the institution with a protest for the value of the Arts and Humanities in higher education.
Sean’s protest work uses research to bring to light the erasure of lives from heritage sites. It is also important to recognise that their research work also makes a protest, in challenging what should be researched and how this research can take shape. Thanks go to Sean and the other exhibitors and respondents for a genuinely thought-provoking evening.
Emily F. Henderson
UCL Institute of Education
Author, Gender pedagogy: Teaching, learning and tracing gender in higher education (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)