Thursday 20 November 2014, Conway Hall

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This Symposium coincided with South London Women Artists Collaborative residency and site-specific exhibition at Conway Hall - Finders keepers losers weepers (4 November 2014 to 28 February 2015), an exhibition that is prompted by the creative and independent thought and free speech behind the Conway Hall Ethical Society, 1787 to date. Finders Keepers Losers Weepers is a school-ground chant and is an English adage with the premise that when something is unowned or abandoned, whoever finds it can claim it. Taking the artwork as a starting point, the panel of 4 prominent female experts in the fields of art, philosophy and science explored the broader issues of mind, memory, possession and loss.

 

The Politics of Visibility, Gender & Identity

panel 2 640x425Women occupying space and being visible along with humour – subversive or otherwise - were recurring themes during this outstanding symposium. The Chair of South London Women Artists Collaborative, Melissa Budasz, reminded us that the original Greek symposium was a forum for men of good family to debate, plot, and boast or simply to revel with others. The evening contributed to women occupying that space.

The event opened with a strong performance Mistakes Women Make by Leonie Cronin, who staggered to the front of the hall dragging ‘stuff’. Using empty eggshells as a powerful metaphor she smashed them one by one and each time we heard a smash she recalled the behaviours women adopt in the boardroom that make them ineffective e.g. smiling too much, flicking hair. Even though the audience were clearly amused by the ridiculousness of the statements, her deadpan delivery was genius. The audience was gripped.

 

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This performance was followed by the writer and photographer Joan Byrne (St Joan of Peckham). The gentle delivery of her poetry belied its subversive humour in poems like I slept with Raymond Chandler and Puff Daddy and the Peckham Pigeon. Hilary Mantel described one of Joan’s short stories as “an intriguing glimpse of lives colliding” and this did seem to describe her poetry too and the way she archived her findings through poetry.

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Melissa Budasz introduced the Chair of the symposium, Rebecca Fortnum, who is Professor of Fine Art at Middlesex University. An academic and artist, probably best known for her book Contemporary Women Artists, in Their Own Words, Rebecca Fortnum spoke about SLWAC, the residency, the crits that supported the development of ideas and the successful schools workshops. She commented on how SLWAC is a group of artists who put women’s experience at the heart of their art making, resisting, challenging and interrogating the ideas of what is valid. She also described the group as inclusive and the work in the exhibition rooted in women’s experience. 

 

Margaret Carlyle who is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge was the first speaker. She explored the gendering of science and authorship and talked about her own research of how the human condition was archived and studied through collections of skeletons in the eighteenth century. She focussed on the anatomical research by the scientist Madam Thiroux d’Arconville and her hidden role in this history. 

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Although her research was significant Margaret Carlyle described how Madam Thiroux d’Arconville chose to publish her edition anonymously, for which she had also overseen the artists who drew and engraved the skeleton illustrations, under a male protector's name, knowing that as a female author in the medical sciences her work would not otherwise be taken seriously.

 

The second speaker was Professor Tina Chanter, Head of School, Humanities, in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Kingston University. Her current research focuses on questions of aesthetics and politics and the need to reflect on how to theorise gender in a manner that explores its intrinsic and complex relationship to other categories such as race, class and sexuality. Whilst her work retains a disciplinary basis in philosophy, it has become increasingly interdisciplinary.

Tina Chanter talked about how “perceptions acquire a rigidity that comes to light only when they break into pieces, only when they shatter”. She talked about how artists make visible new patterns of knowledge with new possibilities of seeing the world. How feminist art shifts known frameworks and reframes our perceptions and whilst the boundaries of art and politics may blur, maintaining tensions between the two is crucial. Her work references Rancière’s notion of ‘equality of intelligence’. To illustrate this she used images such as Kevin Carters’ 1994 Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of a starving child in the Sudan being closely watched by a Vulture. This Iconic image certainly performed a political function and this moment caught on camera and the public’s response to the photograph had such a profound effect on Carter that three months later he took his life.

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Sophie Ristelhueber’s photographs, one of which displays a large deep scar on the back of a woman, and Ingrid Mwangi/Hutter’s installation of large photographs, which include feet hanging just above the dark earth, confront us with the human form in arresting ways. Confronting us with enlargements of parts of the human form, we see the scarred back, the heavy feet. These are not the feet of someone that has jumped up from the earth but the feet of someone who has been hung. These works accomplish Rancière’s redistribution of the sensible.

 

The artist, Jessica Voorsanger, Senior Lecturer Sculpture, School of Fine Art, UCA, was the third speaker. She works in a variety of media ranging from painting, sculpture, installation, mail art, film and performance. Voorsanger delighted the audience with a presentation of her artistic practise which challenges the relationship between audience and artist and examines obsession and celebrity culture in her practice and research. By impersonating and disguising as celebrated pop icons she scrutinises mass communication, popular culture and identity. 

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Recent work explores a more personal narrative, using subversive humour which contemplates nostalgia, memory and trauma. Her rapport with the audience was in evidence when she described being dressed up as David Hockney at an opening at the Hayward Gallery and actually bumping into David Hockney. But despite the humour and apparently shallow subject matter her work also has a strong political content. Her latest body of work, the Bald Series, is a stunning group of life-size portraits of herself as bald men. Faced with losing her hair following radiotherapy after a mastectomy in 2012, Jessica is Telly Savalas (Kojak), Alfred Hitchcock, Picasso. Amusing as these are, they carry the full weight of somebody who has had their identity compromised. Asked by a member of the audience who she was going to be next now that her hair has grown back curly she replied an Umpa Loompa. Mind, memory, possession and loss were explored with biting humour and biting candour. Again the audience was gripped. This was a very strong place to finish.

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In each speaker’s enthusiasm to communicate and share their knowledge and ideas, each overran the allotted times. There was only a few precious minutes to throw open the discussion to the audience. A full day symposium is needed to contribute fully to the contemporary discourse around the issues raised by these prominent speakers. Then as the boundaries of the different subjects dissolve, the tensions between the different disciplines could be explored more fully. 

 

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Written by:

Moira Jarvis, Researcher in Arts Education & Jackie Brown, Education Director- SLWAC

December 2014

 

Special thanks:

Speakers & Performers

Professor Rebecca Fortnum, Dr Margaret Carlyle, Professor Tina Chanter, Jessica Voorsanger

Joan Byrne & Leonie Cronin

Conway Hall & the Technical Team

Dr Jim Walsh - Chief Executive Officer, Conway Hall

Martha Lee - Visual Arts Programmer, Conway Hall

Zia Hameed - Technician, Conway Hall

Carolyn Davies, Lime Twist Media - Video Recordist

Ray Grant - Audio & Visual Technician

Darren Johnson - iDJ Photography

Emmie Jenkins - Transcription of Symposium

 

SLWAC

Jackie Brown, Melissa Budasz, Moira Jarvis, Laura Moreton-Griffiths, Chrissy Thirlaway

Kate Bowe, Liz Charsley-Jory, Reema Dreaming, Gin Dunscombe, Chantal Gillingham, Christine Landreth, Jennie Merrell, Lucy Soni, Eithne Twomey, Caroline Underwood

and to Megan Cronin, Tulia Cronin & Evie Anderson

With special thanks to the Arts Council England for their generous grant and to the Skinners' Company Lady Neville Charity, awarding small grants to local grass roots organisations.

A SLWAC publication on the Finders Keepers Losers Weepers site specific residency and symposium at Conway Hall will be published in 2015.