2015: Looking Back (But Not for Long)

Reading back over what I wrote this time last year, my goals and hopes for 2015, it would be so easy to focus on the failures, the low points, the regrets and mistakes. In some ways, the past twelve months have represented some of the absolute worst times of my life, and certainly some of the biggest regrets.

But in so many ways, 2015 has been one of the best years I have had to date. I’ve met and got to know some truly amazing people, visited new places; I’ve learned so much – about myself, about the world, about art and music – and I’ve been to some spectacular events. And it’s these times I intend to focus on, the good times I intend to store in my memory. Holding on to too much of the past can only prevent you from appreciating the present, and the potential for the future. I’ve held on far too long to the past, it’s time it slept.

Significantly to me, this has also been the year I got back into music, in a huge way, after several years of near apathy. I was listening to the same bands, not really making much effort to hear anything new, and generally didn’t have it in me to care too much. I’ve since realised what a huge mistake that was, because music feeds my moods, it inspires my art and my writing, and it has the power to flip me from a bad day to a wonderful day. Music has truly underlined my life over the past months, in a way I don’t think it did even during my teenage years.

I’ve seen so many amazing bands live over the past year, with many more planned for the coming months, that I can’t quite understand how only twelve months ago this barely mattered to me. Not only have they inspired a large body of art work (work which has, in turn, led to several exhibitions), but I’ve also started dabbling (precariously, badly, slightly incoherently) in writing music of my own.

2015 has seen some utterly outstanding sounds being released by a huge variety of artists, and whilst jotting down notes for this article, it occurred to me that whilst last year I probably couldn’t have named one band who released an album in 2014, this year I can not only name plenty, but I’ve actually had trouble whittling down my choices to a mere ten. I’ve more than likely forgotten some, too, but in closing, here’s the ten tracks (in no particular order) which have really stood out for me this year.

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(Track videos embedded where possible, otherwise there’s track links in the headings – directly to band sites, or to Spotify as a last resort.)

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Subculture, Personal Identity and Individual Freedom

Back in my early teens, feeling rudderless and unbearably average, I began to gravitate towards the alternative music scene, in part obviously because I liked the sound of what little I had access to in my country village, but in part also because visually, the patched denim jackets, tattered jeans and brightly coloured hair of the handful of people I had seen occasionally around the nearest town intrigued and excited me. These were visual cues of an idea which began to take form; the new thought that I was in control of my own identity. That there was more to life than the cliques of high school, and that in taking control of my own appearance and interests in this way, I could stick a literal and metaphorical middle finger up at the shiny, popular crown who had, if not exactly made my life hell, at the very least made it unpleasant and uncomfortable.

In the space of months, I went from a plain, shy and awkward child, to an outspoken, rebellious and far more confident teenager. It’s not that I stopped caring what people thought, it’s just that I stopped wanting to be something that was not only out of my reach, but that was also, I realised, not even a particularly appealing prospect even if it had been. In many ways, it was about gaining a sense of control. I began to understand that certain things just really didn’t matter.

What got me thinking more about this recently was a casual chat where the subject of ‘being a goth’ was brought up. My denial of my goth-ness naturally led to amusement (because, of course, what is more goth than the denial of being goth?) Plus, y’know, look at me. I am clearly influenced by gothic subculture, if with a healthy smattering of other things. But in terms of my individual identity, I’m always reluctant to put a label on my lifestyle. How do I even begin to define the kaleidoscope of musical, artistic, visual and political influences that make up who I am? Why should I feel any need to? Why should anybody conform to a set list of what is and isn’t allowed?

I think subcultural groups, scenes based around art, music and other interests, are hugely valuable, and a massive help to anyone struggling to find likeminded people. But retaining a sense of personal identity within this group is equally important. Having a multitude of differing viewpoints, varied interests even beneath that umbrella, and the ability to freely make choices and decisions based on your own mental process rather than what you think will make people like you better, is equally – if not more- important.

I know people who go to the absolute extremes of what they think their particular subculture means, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. There’s nothing wrong with being switched on to your scene 24/7, if that’s truly what you want, and truly what you are. But so many of the people I have known who do that, you look behind the facade, and there’s nothing there. All they are is a textbook page, a fashion spread. There’s no substance, because their own personal identity has been long overshadowed by a character they started to play and forgot how to put away. They become a caricature, a cliched representation of something, and watching from here it just seems exhausting. Certainly it affects their personal lives and ability to relate to others on a personal level, because whilst you can certainly control your own behaviour and appearances, you cannot do the same for someone else, and to allow another person into a life so meticulously laid out means either shaping them to your own desires, or allowing them in behind that facade. Either way, it’s going to end up emotionally damaging for someone.

There’s defining your own identity, and there’s allowing it to be defined for you. If you are living by a set of rules laid out by anyone other than yourself, then surely you have buried your own identity, and it doesn’t matter if you’re stepping out of the house in a tracksuit and trainers, or black jeans and combat boots. If you feel that it is what you have to be, rather than what you want to be, it is not your own choice anymore.

Scenes should be defined by the individuals within them, not the other way around. That’s how subcultures develop and grow, how new ones spring forth. Maintaining a puritanical view and ruleset on what is and what isn’t allowed simply results in a stale social environment, and ultimately, the absolute death of that scene. There’s no progress without change, and no change when everybody continues doing the exact same things they have always done, thinking the same thoughts, agreeing on the same points.

In many ways, over the last twenty years, my interest in alternative culture has backflipped to the point where I no longer see it as an essential aspect of my life. I started out looking to fit in, looking for like minded people to interact with, and happily I found them. But I don’t feel the need any more to seek approval, to fit in with a crowd. I am certainly active within my chosen social scenes, but I don’t feel the overwhelming need to conform to them all the time. Like most people, I bring my own interests and individuality to the group, and I think that is the healthiest and liveliest outcome possible.

Outside the Gallery: DIY Aesthetics and The Artist as Curator

A recently published study on artists working outside the gallery system reminded me of an article I once read which offered the opinion that the time of the formal exhibition was nearing a close. That, in terms of the art world, the gallery was no longer the only, or major, endgame for many artists, and that in this world of technology and instant access information, the physical exhibition is simply another event for people not to bother leaving the house for. My own paraphrasing, of course.

I can’t recall now where the article in question was published, but it certainly left a lingering thought in my mind.

Throughout college and university, the aim was always the exhibition. Every piece of research, every final product, was a move towards the same endgame. Frames, mirror plates, rules and guidelines. There was one project in three years which touched on the idea that there could be an alternative, which involved students planning and creating a professionally finished, bound book of work. But this was never elaborated upon, nor returned to at any later points. In fact, it was years after finishing my formal education that I began to find out about the possibilities of avenues like self publishing, and the potential for DIY projects. Of course, the advancement and affordability of home technology between 2002 and 2007 certainly helped, but during the 1970s and 80s, there were plenty of people involved in the self publishing scene. Fanzines – hand-compiled, photocopied booklets often themed around music, politics, or both – were small works of art in and of themselves, and the zine scene has evolved now to encompass everything from true-to-the-roots, grainy photocopies, lovingly stapled by hand, to polished booklets of art work rendered in full colour on heavy stock. The overarching message being: if you want something out there, put it out there yourself.

The main issue with the formal exhibition is, and has always been, accessibility. It’s reliant on somebody else, either one individual or a very small group, appreciating or understanding what you do. A tiny fraction of viewers, non-representative of the potential audience, making selection based on their own personal opinions, interests and tastes – no matter how subjective a person tries to be, they will always, to some extent, be swayed by their own bias and agenda.

One could argue that this is the point. That the exhibition filters through the elite, the best at what they do. That only the hardest workers and the most talented earn their space on those white walls. That may hold some element of accuracy, but it is far from the whole truth. And whilst a handful of those talented artists might well slip through, so do many more go completely unseen, unrecognised. And that’s a shame. Like many things, there are other factors at play. What is likely to sell comes high on the priorities of many venues, because as crass a sentiment as it might be, the fact is that for many galleries, sales mean revenue and revenue means continued business. Even in cases where sales are a lesser concern, the work still needs to draw an audience, and curators will look for artists who can fulfil that requirement. There’s no sense in exhibiting to an empty room.

On top of that, there’s location to consider, not to mention the ever-present ‘who you know’. For artists based outside of London and major southern cities, access to both opportunity and network has always been a problem. The crop of northern galleries in recent years has certainly helped, but it has a lot of catching up to do.

So, enter the DIY aesthetic, and this is nothing new, but it has certainly been gaining popularity over the past few years. From self-staged exhibitions in non-traditional venues such as coffee shops, warehouses and bars, to self-published art zines and books. Guerilla art, from the more permanent graffiti to projected displays on the side of buildings. Even online galleries, blogs, Tumblr and Instagram. These are reactions to the exclusivity and formality traditionally present within the art world. These are artists taking a step further in their own creativity, and getting their work out there. Pushing their individual messages, whatever they might be, rather than waiting for someone to deliver them.

Returning to the topic of technology, and its affect on creative lifestyles, one major possibility that has been drawn out of this is the potential for collaborative projects. For the art world, this means everything from easily organising small, local collectives – such as the group I participate in, which I would never have become aware of had it not been for social media – to international projects like Brooklyn Art Library’s Sketchbook Project, which I’ve participated in on a number of occasions. Knowing that there is work I have created sitting in a venue thousands of miles away, being handled and viewed by people I will never meet, it feels like a small victory. Something that you have made is affecting a strangers life, even in the smallest way. For me, that’s the real endgame involved in publicising my work, however I choose to do that. It’s the reason I’m so open with my work, publishing it any way I can.

Many of these artists will never be famous, and they will never be rich. This self-staged output is unlikely to draw large crowds, nor pay the rent. But I think that anybody who wonders what, then, the point of it all is, is perhaps missing it entirely.

Distance, Death and the Loss of Physical Possibility

Six years ago today, I lost a friend. 

That phrase seems so innocuous, so vague. Like I misplaced a glove on the way home. It took me a long time to say it to myself, that he died. Longer to really grasp that he had not only died, but that he had chosen to die. He had attempted repeatedly to end his life, and in the end, he succeeded. I can’t pretend to understand what that is like, because despite my own thoughts at times, and despite some mercifully half arsed efforts, I have never been in the place which would influence me to not only try, but try again and again, until one stuck. 

I never will. Not necessarily because I am certain that I will never feel like that – although I hope against hope that I do not – but because I have watched how it shatters the lives of the people nearby. It took me a long time to come to terms with my conflicting emotions; the guilt I felt at not having been there, the blame I felt towards the people who were there, the sorrow at knowing I would never see my friend again, and worst of all, the rage I felt that he had done it. Anger at someone you can’t speak to about it is unpleasant enough, but anger at someone who had been so low, so unhappy, so deeply finished that he considered suicide his only remaining option, that’s fucking unbearable. I withdrew from the group of friends I associated with him, I mourned him silently and at my own pace. In short, I pushed away anything which could link me to those feelings, but I couldn’t escape my own guilt, anger and shame. 

I can’t say when that went away, but it did. Other than knowing it was around this time, I didn’t even remember the date until a mutual friend mentioned it. It’s not etched into my conscious mind like it was the first couple of years. I’m not angry anymore. I don’t feel guilty anymore, either. I will never understand, but I have had to accept it, because my life has gone on, and the world keeps turning. I will always regret not saying goodbye, but I have never been great at goodbyes. I do remember the last thing I said to him: ‘laters’. Just a throwaway remark, a casual attempt at goodbye from a person who is uncomfortable with farewell. Later. I had meant it, in my own way. I had never imagined that it would be the last word I ever spoke to him. 

I read something yesterday which hit me pretty hard in the thought department, perhaps because all this was already on my mind. An excerpt from a social media post, quoting an author:
“I miss you”
“That’s stupid” she said. “I saw you this morning.”
“It’s not the time,” Levi said, and she could hear that he was smiling. “It’s the distance.”
       – Rainbow Rowell

In some ways, it put me in mind of a song I heard as a teenager. The last track on an album, it ended with a sampled recording of the error message you heard when a phone number was no longer in service. I remember it bringing a lump to my throat because of the insinuation. You can no longer connect with this person. This person is unavailable. The idea at the time was, to me, amongst the worst I could imagine, and even now in the age of constant connectivity, being able to find nearly anybody with just a few keystrokes, it still stings. 

It’s not the time spent away from someone but the distance placed between us, the physical impossibility of contact. Touching, talking, an exchange between two people. The response, the interaction, or at least the possibility of it. That’s what we miss. That’s what we mourn. 

Rest in peace, mate. 

   
   

Learning to Imagine: Academic Creativity and the Therapy of Art

Art classes never really worked well for me. At school, with one teacher, they felt like home for a while, because we were given some degree of freedom. I’ve always liked to draw, even as a small child, and those first GCSE art classes gave me some sort of release in the general boredom that were my schooldays. Then, the next year, we had a different teacher, and she was fresh out of training and full of her own ideas. To me, that’s no good for art. I don’t want to listen to someone else ideas, I want to work on my own. I came out of that course with a B over the A I might have attained in other circumstances.

I’ve never liked being told what I can and can’t do.

At art college, I very nearly failed fine art entirely. I remember the first class we had, we were working with oil pastels. I had used oil pastels before, and so I was working into the piece, creating something. She came by, and told me that I was doing it all wrong. That the way I was using them was the incorrect way to work with oil pastels. My response was not entirely polite, as you might expect from an over-opinionated 18 year old. We largely left one another alone after that, but she put the idea into my head for years afterwards that there was such a thing as a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ way to make art.

I think that’s why I initially gravitated towards photography, choosing to specialise in it in the second half of that course. At beginner level, when you’re just learning what the different chemicals are for, and how to manipulate light, there’s a simplistic beauty about photography. It’s science but it’s art. It’s something that, to an extent, you can learn via a step by step process.(That’s certainly not to say that photography is not art, or does not require an eye for detail and a creative touch, because I do not believe that for a moment, and I was defensive enough over the subject to write my dissertation about it. However, that is a lengthy and highly charged topic for another day entirely.) There are numbers involved, times, recipes and specific technique which can be easily replicated time and time again. I found sanctuary and calm in those classes. There are a great many people who get plenty out of a formal art education, but I am not one of them. Nevertheless, I pressed on with a photography degree, scraping through graduation just barely. With hindsight, I think that I might have done a lot better academically if I had chosen a course in something science based. It would probably have been more use, too.

It used to be the case that I would have an idea, and then I would go off to research it before I even considered beginning. Had it been done before? How had it been done before? I imagined that I was searching for inspiration, but actually, I was searching for validation, some sort of guarantee that I was on the right track, that I was doing something correctly, that I wasn’t going to be laughed at for trying it. I was so afraid of failure that I had trouble even trying. I rarely shared my work with anybody, and only then if I was certain of a positive response.

What a ridiculous way to think.

Mistakes are lessons which you can not learn from anybody other than yourself.

I know now that for me, personally, the very act of sharing my creative output is an integral aspect of its completion. Not only do I like to hear feedback, but the sharing of something which I have created feels like there’s a point to its existence. I paint for myself, I write for myself, but once those things are done, once I feel that whatever therapeutic benefit I’ve gained from painting a picture is complete, why keep it? Why not just gesso over it and paint another picture on the same canvas? I could do that. But it’s not the right thing for my personal process. That’s not to say that the same is true for everybody, or that art should only be created to be seen. I do have some pieces which were created for me and me alone; things which I can go back to, look at, remember the lessons I learned when I made them. But arguably, even in those cases, I’m still sharing them. I am not the person I was when I made them. My role in the process has shifted from artist to viewer.

I am a lot more comfortable with myself and my own thoughts these days because of this openness with my work. I am at peace with the fact that anything I show might elicit any response from the wonderful to the cruel, and I am perfectly prepared for that to happen. Nobody is ever going to do something which appeals to every person on this earth. The only reason I need to do something now is that it makes me happy. Any validation I need comes from the fact that I am emotionally and mentally healthier that I ever was throughout the years of worrying what other people thought.

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Shooting at Mirrors; The Self Portrait in the Modern Age

In more recent years, the autonomous image, the ‘selfie’ has been devalued in the eyes of popular culture, even to the extent of the shortening of the name. It is not something which is given any particular artistic merit, and those who do are often considered to take themselves a little too seriously. The most curious thing is perhaps that although there is no intrinsic difference between the tourist who asks their friend – or even a passing stranger – to take their photograph outside a landmark, and the person who simply acknowledges the progression of modern technology and angles their front facing camera to do it all themselves, I suspect that the latter would attract strange glances and even a touch of mockery from onlookers.

But the self portrait has been an accepted artistic pursuit for centuries previously. As far back as ancient civilisations, people have attempted to represent themselves in the form of artistic media, for reasons which range as broadly as the media used.

The self portrait flips the concept of an artistic gaze on its head. The male artist painting a voluptuous nude holds a very different significance to the young woman talking stark black and white images of her own body. It not only alters the intent of the piece from the outset, it arguably also changes the way we, the viewers, perceive that imagery.

Take the work of Francesca Goodman as example. Incredibly personal, at times painfully blunt and open portraits of herself, but there is that sense of raw intimacy. For me, at least, whilst the work reveals perhaps more than the viewer will ever feel comfortable with, it is a sense more in line with accidentally seeing some private moment, a voyeuristic discomfort rather than the discomfort that might be apparent were we told that these photographs were taken by someone else.

In this photograph, Woodman appears naked, her pose awkward. To the viewer aware of her self portraiture, this presents as a personal and very vulnerable moment, but one which she chooses to commit to film. No matter the circumstances surrounding it (and we can likely assume that little of her work came from the happiest of places given her suicide at 22), she has nevertheless assumed control in some way. This image is hers and hers alone. Her ideas, her choices.

[Nudity ahead]

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Art and Life, Permanency and the Value of Moving On

Should art be transient? Can it? Does the very nature of the piece in question mean that, when it no longer exists, it is no longer art, and that therefore the answer is, no, art cannot be transient because once it has gone, there is no longer any art.

There’s certainly an overarching idea, I think, that permanency adds value to an object. Of course, this is completely true of a broad variety of the things that we might buy, nobody wants to spend money on an object which is going to require replacement too often. A person would almost certainly prefer to pay double the price for an item which will last then five years, than purchase the cheaper item which will only survive for one. That’s simply common sense.

Art, creativity, they don’t always go hand in hand with common sense. I have been at my most creative when I have been at my least logical. When my emotions have raged roughshod through my mind, overtaking any sense of what is best for me versus what I really want, those are the times I have screamed my anger, pain, unhappiness out onto canvas. Metaphorically speaking. From the perspective of a buyer, of course, art is an investment. As a creator, a maker, (and if you remove the obvious necessity to balance creative freedom with the need to pay bills), what you create can be whatever the hell you want it to be.

I adore the contrary indulgence in the idea of creating work which will, in time, fade and disappear. I am drawn to the idea of something intriguing and impressive, or painful and beautiful, which can be viewed only for a limited length of time. Ephemeral pieces, delicate and fragile, or in some other way constrained by the passage of minutes, hours, days.

In life, too, all too often we spend so much time on what has been that we miss so much of what is, and what will be. Time passes by, and whilst we still pick apart that one moment, we miss the opportunities held within the next. Holding on too long to the past, and forgetting to appreciate the here and now.

Life itself is fleeting, transient, and we create things in order to fill our lives with meaning, purpose. We buy objects to fill gaps, in our homes and in our lives. We write stories, create pictures, with the purpose of reaching out for longevity, desperately trying to avoid staring into the void, dodging the subject of our own mortality. For art to mimic this transience is to stare mortality in the face, to give it wide eyes and accept that yes, life is fleeting, and to be comfortable in that. It’s a reminder that nothing will last forever, and that holding on too long to one thing can damage your exploration of the rest.

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Contemplating Mortality and the Prospects of Age

At what age did you realise you were not immortal? How did you react to that discovery?

I’m not completely sure it’s sunk in even now.

I mean, in the abstract of course I understand that I will one day die. Even at 32 I am beginning to notice the first small signs that I am not as young as I was, and that age is undoubtedly beginning to have its way with me. In the most logical, on paper way, I understand that my day might come and that day might be tomorrow, it might be in another fifty or so years, it might be anywhere in-between. But who on earth is capable of imagining what that will be like? Even the most creative human mind needs some frame of reference for the imagination, and there isn’t a soul on this planet who can provide a frame of reference for death. Death is the last great taboo. Nobody wants to talk about it because nobody wants to think about it. It’s the ultimate unknown, the only thing that cannot become a lesson in itself, not for the individual, anyway. Nobody but the living can learn from death. 

Part of the human condition has always been the attraction to the concept of immortality. As beings with a limited lifespan, and a comparatively short one in the grand scheme of life on earth, we are intrigued by, and desperate for, a solution which might mean extending those years. But with a caveat, of course. Nobody wants to spend hundreds of years living in an aged body, the skin deep beauty of youth long since lost and the cruel japes of old age pressing on every joint. 

But to stay young, and live forever, well that’s the premise for one of the most popular literary themes of the past few hundred years, isn’t it? 

When you come right down to it, the general idea of the vampire is rather disgusting. Drinking blood and only appearing at night, on the surface just doesn’t sound like an overly appealing way to be. But the idea that this is the trade off for immortality and eternal youth has pushed the vampire myth well towards the opposite end of the spectrum. It is a romanticised idea, upon which tale after tale has been based. If the pull of eternal youth is strong enough to make the less savoury aspects of being a vampire seem perfectly sane, even desirable, then this is evidence that it is a powerful pull indeed.

But back to reality, and the progress of modern medicine not only in the sense of effective immunisation and cures, safer birth methods and advances in the treatment of previously short-term terminal illnesses, but also in the fields of cosmetic surgery. With enough money, (and seemingly a little luck, or at least sound research into the right surgeon), a sixty-plus year old can have the appearance of a 40-something. Whilst this doesn’t address the issue of mortality, of course, it’s yet another way in which a person can put off having to think about the matter. I suspect it’s far easier to brush off the  of your own impending demise when the face staring back at you from the mirror is relatively smooth and wrinkle free. 

Then there’s cryogenics. A concept which has seemingly grown in popularity during recent years, I had already been aware of the general idea when I saw an exhibition a few years ago at the Impressions Gallery in Bradford called ‘The Prospect of Immortality’. The photographer, Murray Ballard, had spent time documenting the “tiny but dedicated international cryogenics industry”, producing a final exhibition of striking, massive format pieces in beautiful colour alongside audio recordings of some of the people involved in the industry, from the doctors taking care of the patients through to the prospective patients themselves. The work provides an absolutely fascinating insight into this extremely niche, and much ridiculed, prospect, and offers further evidence of the lengths that the human race may go to in the name of extending their natural lifespan. 

The entire idea of immortality of course is only attractive as the abstract concept. I wonder if any person could live with the reality of it. Even assuming that many of the difficulties of a long life at the moment reside in the issues which old age presents, and further assuming that those difficulties might be eradicated with the aid of further medical advancements and the halting of the physical ageing process, I can’t imagine living for hundreds of years. But, life expectancy on average has been steadily climbing, and as science presents further advancements, who’s to say that the curve will not continue to rise? Even now, based on my own family history, and assuming that none of the stupid things I’ve put my body through over the years affect my own life expectancy, the possibility of my reaching my nineties is reasonably high. 

On the other hand, that still means that I’ve lived a third of my life already, and if I’m unlucky, maybe half or more. Which is a depressing thought, and going back to my opening statements, one which I’d certainly prefer not to think too hard about.

That way, I suspect, madness lies.


Response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt for October 20th.

The Effect of Technological Advancement on the Historical Record

Recently, I’ve been researching my family history, an endeavour which has so far been facilitated by the fact that my relatives appear to have been reasonably good at both record keeping, and maintaining physical artefacts of their existence.

My family has always been ‘photographic’. In a large drawer, in an antique bureau, downstairs lives a collection of family photographs which I can reliably date back to 1910, and quite probably slightly further than even that. I organised those a couple of years back, although I’ll shortly be going back through them to see if I am able to put any faces to the names on my family tree.

On top of those, I have more recently found letters and postcards from the 1950s, entries recording family members birthdates and marriages between 1860 and 1890, and various original birth, marriage and death certificates. All of this has meant that, in the space of a week, I’ve been able to reliably trace back as far as 1830, with a further generation still undergoing research.

Around the same time, a magazine I read regularly began to publish a series of articles related to genealogical research. In the first, the writer talks about an article she read about the 2013 discovery of artifacts preserved in the Antarctic for 100 years.

“When I saw these remarkable photos for the first time, I wondered what would happen if a smartphone was left in the ice for 100 years. Would someone still be able to retrieve the images? I think not”

This statement echoes something that I have been saying for a few years in response to one of the reasons I still choose to shoot film, despite the rising cost of doing so, and the time consuming process of developing the images and digitizing them for online sharing. That is, that if someone – even the least historically curious person – were to be clearing out, say, an attic, and came across a folder of old negatives, what would they do with them? I’d wager that most people would at least have a flick through, and many would keep the folder, maybe scan them to see the photographs better. A better analogy given the present time period, and the rapid advancement of technology over the past twenty years might be a box of letters and postcards. Wouldn’t you have a look through, read at least some of them, maybe show them to your parents, siblings? Now, apply that same thought to the discovery of a box of old floppy discs. Are you going to go to the effort of locating a system on which to read them? I’m sure that a handful of people would at least consider it, but I’m equally sure the vast majority would simply place them directly into the rubbish sack.

Of those family photographs I spoke about earlier, the bulk were of course taken within the last fifty or so years, and document my grandparents youth and marriage, then my mothers childhood and teenage years, followed by the birth of first myself, and then my sister, and our own lives throughout childhood, and into our teens. Somewhere around 2000, though, they drop off. In part, I expect, that’s because I turned 18, and a year later moved out to dramatically screw up my life for a few years, and so there weren’t a whole lot of occasions when taking pictures will have appealed to anyone. There’s a few family events, weddings and such, but nothing of the ‘snippets of everyday life’ which appear regularly before that.

But in part, too, 2000 was around the time when the digital camera as a potentially affordable consumer gadget began to pick up momentum, and despite the fact that the quality was terrible, this was offset by the sheer convenience. No more buying film, no more paying for it to be developed, and finding that a third of the shots contain thumbs, cut off heads, or absolutely no image at all.  Sure, the memory cards cost a lot compared to the cost of storage media in 2014, but you only needed one or two. Most point and shoot digital cameras back then barely hit 1mpx, and even on a tiny 32mb storage card, that’s around 80-90 photos. The capacity of between 2 and 3 rolls of 35mm film. If you had a few that didn’t work out, you knew right away, and could delete those to make space for more.

In the decade and a half since then, digital photography has developed to the point where we now have mobile phones capable of better image quality than those point and shoots which all but replaced our film cameras. Arguably, the rapid evolution of this technology has completely revolutionised the photographic industry – certainly within the commercial, news and editorial sectors. The quality of even an entry level DSLR produced within the last couple of years is a rival for some of the highest performing film emulsions (at least in terms of the 35mm/APS formats), in many ways (and as a fervent and unrelenting lover of film, it does slightly pain me to type that).

Process and share within minutes (even faster if you’re using a camera phone or a camera with connectivity), no extra costs after the initial purchase, high quality, prices dropping all the time, no bulky photo albums to store, no wasting reams of paper on pictures you’re not too fussed about. What’s not to like?

How about this.  In twenty or thirty years, what will you be able to show to your kids/nieces and nephews/anyone at all? In one hundred years time, what evidence besides the one day in a decade facts within the census will remain that you ever existed? I’m sure that a lot of people assume that in the future, nobody will care about Mr Smith or Mrs Jones from Wherever, who worked as a secretary/shopkeeper. But we surely gain a rounded perspective on history from ordinary people, and not just celebrities of the day, whose lives will not have been representative of the whole. If I’m sitting here in 2014, looking at the earliest discovery of my lineage, and wondering what my great grandmother’s great grandmother, Leah, was like, and what life was like for her and her family in the mid 1800s, then I am certain that in 2170 or so, there will be people wondering the same things about their own ancestors, people in my generation now. Technology, no matter how capable, will never eliminate simple human curiosity.

“If things don’t change, in a hundred years from now, the only information about our lives will be the basic facts recorded in the national census. Recent censuses have included other questions, so you’ll have snapshots of a persons life taken one day every ten years.”

But, as I have discovered early on in my research, one day every ten years just isn’t adequate. Cold hard facts are useful, of course, but only as a starting point. Had I not seen the notations made in the family bible, I would not have known that relatives of mine a few generations ago had not one, but two children. The daughter, rather sadly, lived only a month, and whilst it is recorded in the next census that they had parented two live children, and one remained, this is quite literally expressed as a small number in a column. It might even have been missed had I not been half-looking for it as partial confirmation that I was looking at the correct records. I certainly wouldn’t have known that this was a family who cared enough to record themselves in what must have been a family treasure (even given my opposition to organised religion, I treat this huge bible with reverence, not for what it represents religiously, but for it’s historical significance). There, in the mid to late 1800s, somebody carefully recorded their names, and the name of a daughter. Later on (there’s a slight change to the writing style), presumably that daughter recorded the details of her marriage, and her two children. On the deaths page is recorded the name of the original male head, and, heartbreakingly, the newest daughter just a month after the recorded date of birth. No census could give me the wealth of information that these simple few pages have. What that family must have gone through as their child was brought living into the world, only to be taken from it mere weeks later. This kind of personal record tells me that this family cared enough to record these events, and offers some kind of insight into their real, personal lives. Not only does this give me important factual  information and allow me to take my research further, connecting the dots between them, in 1889, and me now in 2014, but it also influences me on a personal level, to find out more about these people, and to tell their story.

History is undoubtedly important and intriguing, but there’s also a significant responsibility to ensure that we are not right now wiping our metaphorical tracks as we go, and leaving a historical blank for future generations.

 

[The full article from which I have quoted sections was published in the March 2014 issue of Writing Magazine, and written by Nicci Fletcher.]

Thoughts on Portraying Parkinsons

The Creative Review Twitter feed brought to my attention the interesting (and varied) debate going on with regards to the latest Parkinsons UK poster campaign.

From the article;“A powerful poster campaign for Parkinsons UK uses 26 imagemakers to portray the many symptoms of this debilitating disease”.

There’s no denying that the posters are both powerful, and in many cases, beautifully executed. The artists involved have done what is, in my personal opinion, an amazing job of accurately portraying some of the lesser known facets of Parkinsons Disease, which is no mean feat when a huge percentage of those symptoms are psychological or otherwise silent.

My first responses to the images, not as an artist, but as a close relative to somebody suffering in the later stages of this illness, were mixed. Several of the posters hit home hard, and brought sharply to my attention the fact that even as someone with a good level of awareness of the facts, there are elements which I, at best, misunderstand, and at worst, push to the back of my mind. I can’t help but feel that this sort of realisation can only be a positive thing in terms of further understanding the many, varied symptoms and side effects of both the illness itself, but also the medication and the social issues surrounding sufferers.

In part, my personal attachment to the issue is more than likely skewing my viewpoint. A lot of those images hit me quite hard, emotionally speaking, and force me to not only rethink everything I’ve seen of what Parkinsons does, but also consider more fully exactly what it must feel like to be affected by the various symptoms and surrounding issues. If there is one positive thing, it is that the posters are certainly attention grabbing, and at the very least, may encourage thought in the mind of the viewer, although I have to wonder whether the average person in the street, someone who is not affected by Parkinsons and has only a general level of awareness about it, would have a response strong enough to then go on and gain more knowledge.

On the other hand, however, and this goes partially into the social side of things, I agree with several of the comments posted on the original article, in that the disease is already horrifying enough, and whilst a campaign like this is never intended to be a soft, cuddly approach, it might end up going too far in the opposite direction and further foster misapprehension and fear in those who do not fully understand the implications of the illness. Some of the work seems entirely too vague, and risks the intended message being overlooked entirely, perhaps not helped by the lack of clear charity branding on many of the posters.

As one reader posted, understanding of Parkinsons needs promoting and addressing without the horror aspect. Whilst nobody wants to feel pitied (the symptoms can be humiliating enough without pity), sufferers do need greater patience and understanding from the people around them, and whilst portraying the illness in this manner certainly grabs attention, I can’t decide if it’s for quite the right reasons.