Reflection – Ways of Making

 

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Corner-rounding a few postcards

In response to Les’ invigorating lecture, I thought I would take some time and space in the journal to reflect on my ways of making – which work for me and which do not, and reflect on my practice so far as a whole.

How do you know what to do next?

Research is my fall back starting point. I already love to read, and learn. Diving deeper into a subject I am currently interested in, or branching off from that same subject is often what leads me to new ideas. This research is mostly done online, through reading blogs, journal databases, and other pertinent articles.

When is a project/work finished?

This is the hardest question out there. I was once asked this in a job interview, and it really stumped me at the time, and I have been thinking about it ever since. Most of the work I have been making still feels preparatory for something bigger, more technically proficient, or tight conceptually. I am not sure if this is a lack of confidence in myself, or maybe this has to do with the subject matter I am making work about, which I believe is highly subjective, and constantly changing.

What is it that I do?

Draw, cut, fold, bind, sew, embroider, stitch, think, try, think again, read, write, edit, print, expose, glue, collage, patch, talk, perform, communicate, observe …

How do I get it out of my head?

Sketching, listing, and writing in my sketchbook. I find the act of writing often leads to drawing since the pen is already in my hand, and my hand is already going.

Just jumping right into drawings. Drawing is so immediate, that I can get the images out right away.

Finding my relationship to my practice, and vise versa?

I interpreted this question, as how is my practice a part of my everyday life. While I always aim to draw everyday, there are times where that is just not possible. I do think that looking at images, and collecting them (through an image bank and separate blog) I am actively thinking about work.

I like to have a few little projects on the go. These seem more accomplishable than a big work, but sometimes come together as something larger.

Observing and Collecting as Methodology

I collect photos nearly everyday, of work by other artists that I am interested in or from the world around me, usually things I find on the ground during my daily walks.

I am always collecting scraps of paper – any kind will do. Some is purchased, some is fished out of garbage cans and some is found on the ground with notes and lists on the back

I collect flowers and leaves and then press them, or more often forget about them in books

I collect books, and photos from thrift stores, as well as scraps of fabric, doilies and any other bits and bobs that catch my eye out of an interest of reusing, rather than creating more waste.

Why do I make work?

This is the question I have been grappling with for so long. I make work to share; images, ideas, questions, with anyone who is willing to look and think. I make work because I see connections that I feel need to be pointed out, to improve our understanding of the world, and hopefully make the world a more understanding place? I do this through images and actions, because that is what’s natural, and why fight something that feels good? Ultimately, I think I make work, because when I do not, I feel I am not being heard at all, and there is no worse feeling than that.

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Activity – Zines with Drawing 1911

 

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Drawing 1911 Class hard at work
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Ray Johnson, correspondance (sic.)

I spent the last week teaching a First Year undergrad Drawing class at Mount Allison University, while their regular professor was away installing a show. I had two classes to work with the 28 new students, and decided to focus on mail art and zines. Zines have been a major part of my practice since my first year of undergrad when I made very sappy sentimental work about my long-distance boyfriend of the time. Thankfully that was just a starting point, and I have been awakened to the limitless potential of zines and book works, not only in terms of format, but also content, accessibility and as a community building tool.

I was not surprised when I asked any of them if they had ever made some mail art, or a zine, and they all said no. I reassured them that they probably have made small books before (they all nodded) and have sent a letter or drawing in the mail, or by email (they all nodded) and I assured them that those were all my requirements for something to fit the category of “mail art” or a “zine”.

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Gabor Toth

To start, I gave them a little lecture of some of my favorite drawers who have made zines, participated in mail art, publish books or use photocopying in someway. I was hoping we could have some discussion about what they liked and didn’t like that I showed them, but they were all sleepy and tired. I really tried to coax a critique of what I had shown them, but no luck! I them gave them free rein of my zine and mail art collection, which is about 300 booklets, but specific to all things/drawing styles I like. I was amazed that as soon as they had a physical book in their hands, they felt comfortable talking about the work in front of them. Some students even recognized artists from the internet/their Instagram posts, and could relate in a more intimate way.

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Emily Dickinson (something I consider related to Mail Art)

Because of this comfortableness they seemed to have with physical images over digital, as part of the assignment I gave them, I asked each student in the class to go to the library, and take out a book. It could be any book at all, but I mostly wanted to get them over the fear of going to the library. I remember how it was so intimidating to me when I first got to university, but once I forced myself to go in, I was amazed at how I could just find wonderful books everywhere.

We did drawing exercises which included a spiral as a physical and mental warm up, a visual diary page, and I challenged them to completely fill a 8.5 x 11 page with drawings in under 20 mins. That was the hardest task. We also learned how to fold simple 8 page zines, and made our first book by drawing a page and passing it to their neighbour, with only one song’s length to complete the task. Every activity was timed with music, to keep them focused and on task. The overall aim of these exercises was to warm them up, and loosen up their drawing style. Most drew very mall and tight naturally, so this was a challenge to try something new. Some did, some didn’t.

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Camille Engman
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Marc Bell

 

 

 

 

For these classes Lynda Barry and Ivan Brunetti were major influences. I think the playful, but regimented and methodical style of teaching Barry employs in her Syllabus, was the right approach for first time zine makers. I wanted the students to have fun with this, and see that you can make a book in an hour, that it does not have to be an onerous task. Brunetti’s book Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice, was another useful tool in terms of technique, and we did a few of his narrative and sequence exercises as warmups. These are two teaching tool books I go back to repeatedly, whether with kids, adults or students. I like to have them with me for teaching, as physical books, and often the students are curious to learn more. Even if the students are not explicitly interested in graphic novels, comics or cartoons, I think they are a great entry point to making books, as they can be completely wordless quite simply, and emphasize clarity over drawing style.

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From Ivan Brunetti’s Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice
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A Page form Lynda Barry’s Syllabus

In keeping with the idea of bookmaking as a simple practice, I gave them an assignment at the end of class tuesday, that would be due at the end of the class thursday. Using the book they got from the library as a point of inspiration, they needed to make a drawing with at least one fold. This could end up being a book, a sculpture, an envelope full of small drawings – it was completely up to them. These could be embroidered, printed, photocopied, painted, collaged ….

I asked them to think about how and where this item would travel. Are they just going to hand it to your neighbour, or is it going to be sent by mail across the world? Or is it going to be emailed to someone, or posted online so they can download and print it? This means considering dimensions, weight, durability and costs. I asked them to make this item with the intention of it either being a multiple, or one of a kind, but think about how it will be replicated, and be prepared to discuss.

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Michael Dumontier, White Shirt (as an example of folding without drawing)

I was expected most of them to shy away form book making, but almost all of them made an 8 to 16 page book, that could easily be photocopied. Here are some of the examples:

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Research – A Handmade Assembly

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opening night round table discussion at the Curling Club

Last weekend I participated in a 4 day long conference which focused on craft and the idea of the ‘handmade’. A Handmade Assembly is a community event in Sackville, NB that brings together artists, curators, and others makers from the region and elsewhere in Canada to lead discussions, facilitate workshops, initiate projects, open exhibitions and share in a common thread, the handmade.

It is organized collaboratively by the Owens Art Gallery and Struts Gallery & Faucet Media Arts Centre with the support of the Fine Arts Department at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. I would say these are the 3 main visual art resources in the town.

The Assembly was created as a response to the significant number of artists who have in recent years been using materials and processes that are laborious, often intimate, and usually associated with traditional craft methods. Sackville s home to many makers with ties to the university and those without. With a steady flow of residencies, visiting artists and curators, the small town of 2500 (5000) with the University students, is teaming with activity. The Assembly is one of the larger events hosted yearly in Sackville. It aims to interpret the ‘handmade’ in the widest terms, embracing interdisciplinarity and wide-ranging critical inquiry.

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installation view of Erik Edson’s Other Stories at the Owens Art Gallery

This was the 7th year of the assembly, and it is interesting to see changes, or lack of changes, as I have attended the last 5 years. My highlights of the weekend were opening night roundtable discussion, Hazel Meyer’s artist talk, learning beading with Katherine Boyer and the various exhibitions and performances. Overall this event is so successful in the way it brings people together, so that we can learn and exchange ideas.

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Choosing and Learning about our beads
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my bead work from the workshop

The opening night roundtable discussion was formatted so 4 artists each gave brief talks about their work or research. Followed with a discussion of what the Handmade Assembly is for. This discussion followed a pretty similar path to other year’s – how the handmade is valued differently than industrially made items, though not often in the same economical ways and the grey area of how we value time. Everything takes time to make, even industrially made objects, which can often have very similar end results ie. Doilies – hand crocheted vs. machine made vs. a doily made by and “artist”. We often find that the handmade ones are nicer, even though both a handmade one and machine made one serves the same purpose – to protect a table or other surface. While the one made by an artist is held above the other two, significantly in terms of price. These notions of value, and questions about why we make what we make in the way that we make it, are continually raised, and sometimes answered.

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My pal Evan at the Heart&Pocket Revue

Another component of the Assembly is the Heart & Pocket Revue, a crafters market supported by artists and crafters from Sackville and around the region. There are always a variety of objects for sale, and I often have a table for my zines and prints, alongside people selling earings, bags, wallets… but this is definitely a different event. The attendees come to shop, which is fine, but there is this other layer of questioning the value of handmade items. How much are people actually willing to spend on a small print, when they could by something ‘useful’ like a totebag.

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Alana Moruney Leading a Leather Sketchbook Workshop

These questions of commerce and art seem inescapable to me as I do not want to soley make work that will sell. I am ok not really selling much at these events and truly I do it for the sense of community, but it is a hard to grapple with the lure of becoming internet famous to support myself financially.

Time seems to always be the overarching theme in realm of the Handmade. We need time to think, to make, to look, to absorb, to experience, to consider… but how do we value these different amounts and types of time? All of the workshops, talks, exhibitions, crafters products, etc. took time. I think all these types of time are valued in the Handmade Assembly, as it is a place where anyone can be heard in discussion, and everyone’s comments and ideas are valued.

 

 

 

Research – Tagging Specimens

Archiving systems have been and are created to suit the needs of specific objects in collections, public and private. There are already systems in place for most items, but what are the constants/limitations of information collected? What are the over arching goals?

This article: https://spnhc.biowikifarm.net/wiki/Labeling_Natural_History_Collections , specific to Natural History collections meticulously details what pens and inks to use, as well as the other minutia which aid in a conservator’s efforts.

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Thomas D. Russell Geological specimen labels
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“Purchased by Mr. James Richardson, of [the] Am. Museum of N. Hist. [American Museum of Natural History], in the flesh, in the New York Market.” Passenger Pigeon specimen from the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
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Tags on Tropical parula specimen #36953, elegans holotype, Carnegie Museum
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Peter Marmet Meteorite Collection

learning about these labels, it seems that as much consideration has gone into the system of categorizing objects, as observing the objects themselves. I am interested in how the labels are often larger than the objects themselves. The scale and importance of the label, indicates to me that they are integral to the understanding of the specimen/object. The deign elements seem an important consideration for the practicality of the object (to obtain the written information quickly and conveniently, to help keep specimens/objects ordered), but they do not seem standardized. Even today there is ongoing debate about what information needs to be included.

The labels are carefully placed as to not harm the object they are attached, and considerations about the pH of paper and ink have been considered to prevent harm. This evidence of care leads me to want to now more about the specimens, and why they are special enough to warrant such considerations.

Are archives relating to Astronomy a part of Natural History collections? Should observations be tagged in the same way as physical specimens? Would this help us understand the night sky in a more tangible way? What would happen if we included subjective information to these labels? What would that information be? How would that effect our understanding of the world around us?

The Night Sky and Human Bodies

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Louise Bourgeois, The Long Night, 2009

Traditionally, stars had been described as fixed points of light in the night sky, but with changing technology our ideas about them has expanded. They are now considered active, constantly moving and ebbing areas of plasma and gases. These changing ideas are still founded in human perception, and are always in relation tour own bodies. I am interested in how through physical observation, technical hypotheses, and artistic imagination our relationship to and understanding of stars is always changing.

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Louise Bourgeois, Polar Star, 2008
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Louise Bourgeois, The Long Night, 2008

 

These clock works and other astronomy inspired works by Louise Bourgeois evoke a sense of time passing, though a corporal relation to the universe. This sense of mortality, could relate to human biological cycles, especially that of women, and reproductive ties to the rotation of the earth. Because so much of Bourgeois’ work is autobiographical, it is easy to imagine these are stars she has looked up at, and had some connection with, strong enough for her to reproduce them repeatedly in print.  Of her work she remarks: “Some of us are so obsessed with the past that we die of it. It is the attitude of the poet who never finds the lost heaven and it is really the situation of artists who work for a reason that nobody can quite grasp. They might want to reconstruct something of the past to exorcise it. It is that the past for certain people has such a hold and such a beauty … Everything I do was inspired by my early life.” (Bourgeois, p.133.)

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Louise Bourgeois, Les étoiles, 2009

 

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Russell  Crotty, Three astonomical globes, Vancouver Art Gallery, BC  2003
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Russell Crotty, the milky way

Astronomy has been Russell Crotty’s passion from a very young age. He studied the night sky, becoming an accomplished amateur astronomer with observational contributions to astronomy organizations such as NASA and ALPO. He studies the stars through the viewfinder, not through digital imaging devices. His obsessive documentation of celestial phenomenon shows through his work which combine actual scientific theoretical research and his own interpretations. The globes transform the night sky into something physical. Just a globe is used to better understand the geography of the world, his globes lend themselves to helping the viewer understand the way we see the stars.

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Véronique La Perrière M., Le Souffle d’Uranie (Urania’s Breath), 2014

Véronique La Perrière M.’s practice raises questions about memory and trace, perception and identity, the invisible and the phantasmagorical. Her research explores, in the context of historical collections, intersections between mythology, imagination and the rise of scientific thinking. The film Le Souffle d’Uranie (Urania’s Breath) the artist retells the story of Urania, the Muse of Astronomy in Geek myth. The video puts cosmic images into motion, that appear and disappear through the movement of an evanescent matter. She writes that the work is “Inspired by the history of astronomy and the influence of celestial bodies on human consciousness, the film is a meditation on the mystery and fragility of existence.”

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John Torreano

John Torreano’s work depict gems, jewels and stars. The gems in these often large-scale panels and sculptural columns form galaxy-like constellations. Torreano’s work often refers to actual galaxies in outer space, with combinations of realism and abstraction. His paintings raise questions of scale, and cause the viewer to question whether they are looking at something incomprehensibly large, something small, that they could hold in their hand, or something viewed through a microscope. All reference the natural world, and draw upon the similarities of patterns found in the natural world.

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Kiki Smith, Nocturne, 2006

Kiki Smith’s representations of stars often depict the vastness of space, and the desire to understand and tame, through categorization, scientific analysis or myth. She usually presents the night sky in relation to the figure or animals, as point of reference. The interconnections of nature is a theme which runs through much of Smiths work, questioning the earthly against the celestial, and the macrocosim and microcoism.  These distant constellations harked the wonder so many feel when looking to the night sky, and point to the mystery that compelled the first astronomers to want to record, name and chart them. She continues this desire to understand though sculpture, drawing, print…

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Kiki Smith, Constellation (detail)

In these artists work, there is an attempt to relate the cosmos, to the body, either in representation, scale or narrative. I think they all speak to a desire to understand the unknowable through the body, and when possible, touch. The night sky has been so widely represented throughout art history, and I feel that I could go on about other artist’s desire to recreate the night sky.

Continued on November 20: https://rachelthorntonjournal.wordpress.com/2017/11/20/making-the-universe-physical/

Research – National Gallery of Canada Visit

This weekend was a Canadian long weekend (Thanksgiving), so I was fortunate to be able to travel to Ottawa, Ontario, where my family is from to spend the holiday with them. This also meant I was traveling to one of the larger cities, with more opportunities to see art in person. Unfortunately, the Ottawa art gallery and SAW Gallery, an artist-run-centre were under construction, and have been closed for a while, with only pop-up exhibition which I was not able to visit this trip. I could visit the National Gallery of Canada though.

There I could visit the contemporary galleries (Canadian and Indigenous Art: 1968 to Present) and the much anticipated newly curated Canadian Galleries (Canadian and Indigenous Art: From Time Immemorial to 1967), which underwent a year long update in anticipation of the Canada 150+ celebrations. Unfortunately, the Biennial of their recent acquisitions did not open until next weekend, but it is always an exhibition I am very curious and highly critical of. In the last two years’ changes of government, I am curious to see the representation included in the purchases – but I will have to wait until the December break.

While many of the Canada 150+ events were a more than a bit controversial, or large theatrical productions seemingly put on for tourists, I found the new Canadian and Indigenous art galleries a nice break from some of the wacky festivals (Calgary Giant Snakes and Ladders, Chalk Art Festivals…). Since its opening almost 30 years ago, in 1988, this is the first time to the galleries have undergone a major change. The NGC’s Director, Marc Mayer called it “rearticulating the story of art in Canada by integrating Indigenous art and photography into the narrative.” He believes it will be a “transformative experience” for art enthusiasts, in an interview with the CBC. (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/national-gallery-canadian-indigenous-galleries-1.3962263)

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Installation view of NGC

I don’t know that I found it a trans-formative experience, but it was nice to see the changes, which included arranging indigenous and colonialist works along side one another to create a dialogue about how one influenced the other. I could feel that there were still so many pulls to be safe in this exhibition, which is understandable in such a large cultural institution. However, the do not touch signs on every sculptural work, were incredibly distracting. Almost all of the works by indigenous artists were behind glass, which made it difficult to get a closer look, and appreciate the materiality of the works.

I found the contemporary galleries much more alive. With so many artist multiples, videos and prints on display, I was excited to see many of the interdisciplinary artists I learned about during my undergrad on display. There works by indigenous artist were treated no differently than the other works on display, and were never presented as ‘other’ to the rest of the exhibition.

One piece I was very excited to see in person was I Am the Coin by Micah Lexier. This piece employed the artist’s unique visual language, which he draws form diagrams and his playful use of language. The 20 000 coins were mounted in a near perfect grid. The story by Derek McCormack, can be read in a few different directions, and really activates the way the viewer reads a story. You have to walk from left to right, and move your head around to see the letters pressed into the highly reflective coins. You really want to find the coin and because of that challenge read the whole story, and spend time looking and reading. You can find the coin for yourself here: http://iamthecoin.com/ I didn’t find it in the gallery, but I did online.

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Shelley Niro, Five Hundred Year Itch, 1992

I was also able to see Shelley Niro’s works which use photographs of herself and female family members cast in contemporary positions to challenge the stereotypes and clichés of Native American women. One of her work I could see in person was 500 Year Itch, 1992. In his work Niro parodies Monroe’s famous skirt-billowing scene originally from The Seven-Year Itch. The middle image is of one of Niro’s family members, and the third is of the artist.  Five hundred years refers to the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s landing in 1492 on the shores of North America. The way Niro plays with documentation, and archive through presentation is subtle, but combines historical and contemporary photography.

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Kelly Mark, Hold That Thought, Neon with programmed failure units

There was a lot of great thought provoking works on display, and I am sure I will circle back to them in other journal posts, but these seemed to be right at the heart of things I am trying to work through at the moment. Be it curatorial decisions, the work itself, or the information I have gained from researching these artists further, I am going to take Kelly Mark’s flickering neon’s advice and Hold That Thought, to bring it into my work.

Research: Asterism Exchange

Astronomy as one of the oldest of the natural sciences has a rich history of interdisciplinary scholarship. Its study employs combinations of religious, mythological, cosmological, calendrical and astrological belief systems, which still have influence on the studies today.

This scientific practice, based in the act of observation and interpretation, has for decades included some form of bias, be it scientific intention, the hand of the artist or theological persuasions. The way we choose to document the night sky varies on these intentions. With changing technology, carvings have given way to drawings, which have given way to photographs and other modern was of looking, but they are all based on looking at what is above and around us.

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Maria Clara Eimmart, Phase of the Moon, Aspect of Saturn and Phases of Venus, Late 17th Century

One of the oldest examples of documenting the night sky is the Nebra sky disk (1600 BC Germany) presents a stylized, but accurate depiction of the night sky. Henrietta Swan Levitt, Caroline Hershel and Maria Clara Eimmart, have created depictions of the night sky, which are not only accurate, but beautiful. The history of documenting the night sky is rich and diverse, with examples from all continents, and new depictions and photographs of the night sky are continuing to be taken/made everyday. Some employ more personal, subjective representations, while others are highly methodically recorded using conventions that have been developed over hundreds of years, such as NASA’s, in the hopes of completely objective documentation, but what we choose to look at and study is founded on human curiosity.

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Drawing and observations of a comet by Caroline Herschel, 1790

This curiosity dawns from the night sky’s seemingly understandable expanse of hot gases, debris and the incomprehensible nothingness. It is a place where so few people will ever have the chance to physically experience. We can see it everyday, practically reach out and touch it, but it is ultimately incomprehensible. The night sky is close, but far, seemingly touchable, but also never possible to touch, and these tensions between the common/everyday and the true mysterious nature of it, causes its desire to be understood.

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Rachel Thornton, For Her Cloak (detail), Cyanotype, 2017

This project would aim to encourage participants to take a second look at the night sky, to question what they are looking at and why they are curious about it. By creating an asterism exchange, I would exchange images I have made of clusters of stars (real and imagined, made of cyanotype, silkscreen, drawings, embroideries) in exchange for participant’s drawings, textile, photograph, or other types of representations of the night sky. Each would be accompanied by a form/label tag to document a variety of information, some scientific, some personal, some cosmological. In the aims of conflating ideas of documentation, combining personal information with the scientific, and conflating different scientific means of documentation. By trading slices of the night sky, I hope to activate how people (amateurs, experts, hobbyists, anyone) choose to look and think about the night sky, and validate their hypotheses, no matter how whimsical they may be.

I think this project could transform to include more of a performative element, with me/a performer as a star keeper, actively cataloguing stars as they are documented.  I can imagine costumes, a booth for receiving the asterisms and an elaborate cabinet/filing system to keep the works.

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Rachel Thornton, sketch for exchange

Next steps:

Take time to just draw, research and create

make website with information, promote, make pdf of form

Possible questions/categories for the form:

Date observed/created/imagined

Who were you with/what were you thinking about

How bright is the star in magnitude or on a scale of 1-10

Location/What direction were you facing

 

Questions to continue asking myself about this project:

Who can participate? And why will they want to?

What is the artists transformation? How do I prevent this work from being purely didactic?

 

How can this work be more accessible?

What about low vision/blind populations, how do they interpret the night sky – how do we share information?

How do I share this project with people who speak languages other than English/French? Is this project mainly for Canadians?