Emma Bolland. Tapping into the creative mother lode
Both writing and art are practices that potentially draw on the rich seams of narrative in the world around us. When you have someone like Emma Bolland, who illuminates life from both, then the result is a richly textured tapestry of perceptions.
Tell me about yourself.
I’m an artist and writer based in Leeds. I graduated in the 80s, so technically I guess I’ve been at it for a long time, but it feels like it’s only in the last 3 to 4 years I’ve really been able to focus. I’ve had a lot of gaps when I haven’t been able to work. The last one, when I wasn’t writing or making at all, was between 2007 and 2009: totally blocked and an awful time. In 2010 I managed to pick up my practice and it’s been really productive since then. For some reason things suddenly clicked and it feels like I’ve hit a really rich seam. Particularly with my writing, up to that point everything I’d done always felt very dislocated from my visual practice. I never knew quite what to do with it because I knew I wasn’t a poet or a novelist (although I wrote some poetry in my early twenties, and was published, and had some performed at the National Theatre by Anna Cartaret, the actress who played Juliet Bravo. All I can say about it is, thank God it’s out of print). I knew I wanted to write but couldn’t find the form, but since 2010, my writing gradually became more relevant to and integrated with my visual practice and in fact I wouldn’t separate them now. I think of them as being the same thing. The writing that I do now veers between lyrical essay and academic writing; it’s not orthodox academic writing, but pieces that blend the two. If I want to do a conference, I’ll call it a paper, but I always try to challenge the convention.
Would you talk about the problems you had with your creative block?
I’ve had many periods like that before. I have what’s been called a chronic mental health condition from when I was very young, which has been given many different diagnoses over the years. The last time I checked they were calling it bipolar disorder (manic depression), not that diagnoses necessarily mean much – I think my ‘illness’ was experiential in origin, not biological, or maybe a combination. There have been a number of times when it’s been the down side – hospital, the lot.
People might think of the bipolar ‘high’ as being a creative time, but it’s not. You think you’re being creative but when you look back on what you’ve done, it’s all over the place, or you’re just running around taking risks, being chaotic, thinking unreal thoughts, psychosis, getting yourself into trouble. There’ve been times as well when I’ve stopped eating: been skin & bone. Madness. But in the low times, when it’s been very acute, I’ve lost the ability to read. I couldn’t even get to the end of the sentence, never mind write. So in terms of my visual practice, I would have ideas, but they were never developed. It’s as if your brain stops working. I still struggle but I don’t think I’m going to get that ill again. So I would say the last few years I’ve really found my feet creatively.
What was the breakthrough that helped you become creative again?
It was a combination of things. Some medication. But the main thing has been therapy with a proper psychoanalyst. I’m incredibly lucky to be one of the few people who get that on the NHS. I’ve been seeing the therapist for years now. It was slow, incremental but it hit a point where it all kicked in. I also sorted out my personal life and there were quite a lot of fortuitous things that happened. If I look back to just how fucked up I was (I’ve had psychiatrists tell me I was being unrealistic in thinking I would ever work) it seems like another world.
So where is your work now?
Some of my art practice has been very text-based, and by that I mean that I’ve used text as image. I’m interested in using typographic elements in a very visual way. I started doing a series of very large drawings that were to do with the narratives of landscape, or the associations of landscape and trauma. My work in the past had dealt with those themes in different ways, and I’ve made quite a few films and installations. I would take imagery from crime novel covers, or rework a narrative of Hansel and Gretel, but transported to a public park. So, in 2010 I started doing these really large graphic works (about 5 foot by 6 foot high); they picked up the narrative, and were shown (with some object / installation pieces) in 2011. The curator (Judit Bodor) decided to have a closing event, and asked me what I thought about doing an ‘in conversation’ event with the writer David Peace. His most recent novel is Red or Dead; at that time he was most well known for The Red Riding Quartet and The Damned United. The work they were thinking about in relation to mine was The Red Riding Quartet, a series of fictional reworkings of real and imagined narratives. I said ‘Absolutely, yes.’ They contacted him and found he was actually living in Yorkshire, having returned from Tokyo (he’s back in Tokyo now). He came over to meet me and looked at the work and we talked together. We immediately found we had lots of things in common; for example, writings/writers that we liked. He was also very interested in the way text-type appears on the page. If you look at his novels, the ‘typesetting’ often forms pattern that mould the narrative shaping of the prose – you can really see this in the Tokyo novels. So in a way we were doing something in common, but I was the visual and textual (in that order) and he was the textual and visual. We were arriving at the same endpoint through different ways of doing something.
We held an ‘in conversation’ event chaired by another novelist Jake Arnott, who is sometimes known as a crime novelist and who wrote the Long Firm trilogy (but he’s much more than that – his last book The House of Rumour is a sort of gloriously bonkers doorstep of a book that defies categorisation. Mark Lawson called it The Da Vinci Code with brains, which does and doesn’t do it justice). Because David and Jake are well known, my ‘cultural value’ went up by association, which opened a lot of doors. I’m not saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing, and it’s something that happens in other people’s minds, not mine. It wasn’t a strategic move by any means. I hate that kind of manoeuvring. As a result of this, the curator who facilitated the event, Judit Bodor, and I decided that there was something in my engagement with David’s practice that needed exploring. I remember the evening when Judit said to me ‘You and David should do a text/image publication together’. (This was in the pub afterwards, when drink had been taken). But David moved back to Tokyo, so it wasn’t really viable to explore any possibilities or authentic creative fit for this. So I emailed David and said ‘How do you feel about me using some of your text as a starting point for some work?’ and he very kindly said yes. I then asked Judit whether she wanted to be a creative partner in this, not as a curator who curates my project, but actually as a part of it, as a creative partner. She takes risks as a curator and so she agreed to do this. We then brought in the third person, Tom Rogers who’s a fine art photographer.
That project is still ongoing and is called MilkyWayYouWillHearMeCall.We took as the starting point David’s novel Nineteen Eighty, a reimagining of the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, set in Leeds at that time. We didn’t do any historical research into the crimes but we used David’s novel, which is mostly factual (with some bits of fiction). We did what’s known in popular parlance as ‘psychogeographical’ research trips to places where the women’s bodies were found and produced work from that. I’ve written a lot of text for the project alongside the visual work, which is mostly my drawing and Tom’s fantastic black-and-white film photography of those trips. Surprising things happened. At one point Judit said ‘You know, what you’re doing is performance’, and I said ‘No, I’m not a performance artist!’. Judit then said ‘Well, actually you are: it’s performance for camera’. This was because I ended up enacting rituals at the scene. I had some real gold dust that I bought in Venice years ago. It was expensive then, but of course metal prices have since rocketed. I had this stuff in my studio for ages thinking I would one day make a piece of work from it, but it had to be really perfect, amazing, special; of course, that never happened. On impulse, I started carrying a little bottle of the gold dust to each of the sites and I ended up doing things like scattering it on the ground where we thought the bodies had been found, trying to obliterate hate graffiti. We gilded a skip. Using something supposedly very precious in a material sense in a very unprecious way. Not throwing it away, but like an act of mourning or remembrance. A tribute.
The project is ongoing. We have a research blog. We’ve not added anything to it for the past year, as all three of us have been doing other things, but it’s not going away. We’ve had two co-authored exhibitions that present the visual and textual outcomes in installation form, and we’ve presented it at conferences & symposiums. We’d like to do a larger exhibition, and ultimately a publication. I’m thinking of doing some more site visits and making some short films and sound works. David has been really great about the use of his text. I’ve actually reworked some sections to make prose poem pieces. He’s been really good about giving us permission to do this and arranging things so that we don’t have to pay for copyright.
This is actually an interesting area to discuss. Because you have to be very careful when you’re reimagining other people’s work, or you could be accused of plagiarism.
There is a long tradition of rewriting & reworking texts, particularly in poetry. In visual practice, including film, people have always referenced, borrowed. We all accept the term ‘homage’. However, I do think that you need to formally acknowledge, reference and credit. Not do so might not be intentionally dishonest (and reworking is not the same as plagiarism at all) but it is a bit stupid, and rather rude. I always reference when I’m aware I’m borrowing, or paraphrasing. There’ve been a few high profile cases of plagiarism recently; while some have been premeditated plagiarism, there’s another case where the work clearly falls within a tradition of reworking and reads as such. The furore in that case seemed really over the top, and rather nasty. I think the person in question was being a bit stupid by not formally framing his process, but not dishonest.
When you are taking somebody else’s work and looking at it, is it something that you’ve really got to have a feel for if you want to get it right?
It’s not something I’ve done with writing before (though some of my visual practice has consciously reworked other imagery). This was a specific thing I wanted to do with that novel. I didn’t use even whole sentences, I used fragments and phrases drawn from throughout the book. That approach was very much part of the MilkyWay process: we weren’t ever interpreting or illustrating the novel, and a lot of the things we’ve done don’t have any direct link to his text, apart from it being our starting point. It’s more that we used the text as a speculative map, or a kaleidoscopic lens through which to explore place. We used the book to mediate our experience of place because one of the things we wanted to do was to explore the mythologies that grow up around site and trauma. So I had a very strong, deep relationship with those parts of the text that had been informing my emotional relationship with the places that we visited. It was those bits of text that I reworked.
You’re working between media with a lot of your projects. How do you keep making this transition between the two? How do you get the balance right?
With MilkyWay, what’s interesting is that I see our research blog as a piece of work in its own right. I don’t see it as the kind of record of what we’ve been doing on the project. We were very careful about how we designed it. In terms of the written posts I put up, I take them very seriously and they very carefully crafted. I have an individual site now, and I take the same approach there with my non project-specific writing. My posts are never casual things. Interestingly, the images on the MilkyWay blog are mostly Tom’s photographs, which reproduce really well, and capture the experience of our physical engagement with the spaces. My drawings are really difficult to document. For example, there’s one that is 15 feet long and done with light grey ink and Rotring pen: tiny details of clover and grass that I picked at some of the sites. There are large pieces that are done with white ink on white paper. You can imagine trying to photograph them. There are examples of drawing but I use details, studio shots. It’s in the shows that the drawing’s been more visible. The shows have been in quite small spaces but we have been careful about how we curate the show.
When we stage a show, we spend two or three days working together; moving stuff around, thinking and talking, so each exhibition is a reworking of a relationship between different people and the different components and the specifics of the space. Although when we have to, we work fast & intuitively. When we had a temporary wall installation of the work at Somerset House (as part of the John Berger retrospective events) we had stuff unpacked and up in half an hour. In terms of the exhibitions, the editing is done there. One of the attractions for me of having a big show, in a big space, is that my drawings can be shown as discrete objects, because they are very big and there are quite a lot of them now. In terms of the other things that I do, my work has always been narrative led. So the media I work with will suggest itself to me from the narrative.
Recently I’ve been presenting papers at conferences, which is new for me. But I’ve tried to do them in quite a disruptive way in terms of orthodox academic practices. As well as mixing the scholarly with the lyrical, I focus on the delivery of the paper almost as a performance, an event, and I think very carefully about a visual presentation that isn’t simply illustrating the writing of the text that I’m reading, but is also part of the narrative, so that sometimes the images take over.
How do you do this?
When I construct the visual presentation I do it as an artist, not as an academic. For me, assembling a visual narrative is almost like curating a show. I think more and more because my written work and my visual work are so intertwined it is difficult to say how I actually do this. The whole thing is very much at a developmental stage. But the presentations I did for two large conferences in 2013 seem to have gone down well. Last year I started working with sound as well, which is a new thing. This was Brian Lewis’s suggestion. He is the editor at Longbarrow Press and also a writer & filmmaker.He’s been a great advocate for the MilkyWay project (which is how we met, and eventually became a couple) and thought that sound work would be a natural extension of my practice. He’s also been recording my conference presentations and some of my essays, so now when I put those online I put the audio up as well as the text.
So now things are happening. In August last year I got an email inviting me to propose a piece for the National Trust Contemporary Art Commissions (curated by Judith King at Arts and Heritage). It was a real honour because you have to be nominated: it’s not an open submission. My longlist proposal got through to the shortlist and then they pay you to write a final full proposal. My idea was a sound and video installation. I did quite a lot of moving image and projection up to about 2006. It’s an area of my practice I had forgotten about. But as I’d recently set up a blog for my own work, I was trawling through my digital archives and rediscovered all this work and thought I want to start doing that again. So when I went for the initial visit to Cragside in Northumberland where the commissions are going to be hosted, the space I looked at really suggested itself in the form of audio/visual work. It involved books and texts from Cragside’s library and archive and dealt with the intersection between electric light, workers’ education and women’s emancipation (Cragside was the first house in the world to be electrically lit). In the end it didn’t get selected (they chose four artists, and the work will be at Cragside this summer). I was gutted, absolutely gutted, as I’d developed the idea over four months and was really attached to it. The feedback was that in a curatorial sense it wouldn’t fit in with a group of four, ‘and stood out on its own somewhere’. They were very lovely and said that they really liked it, and would like to look at the possibility of commissioning it as a stand-alone piece. Of course it would be great if that happened, but even if it doesn’t it was a huge honour to be invited on to the long list, and was a fantastic learning experience. It was a creative process that has enriched me, and it’s got me making moving image again.
You’re talking about presenting to conferences really being a performance piece and you consider it in terms of curation. Are you thinking about the mechanics of the curation or what it is you’re trying to present? Just go through the process for me so people can understand what curating an exhibition, presentation or installation is.
I guess curator and curation can cover a wide range of practices. I like Judit’s approach. The word curator comes from curare, which is Latin for ‘to care for’. Originally a curator would be a curator of the collection in an exhibition and would be part conserver, looking after a set of objects (like in the British Museum). In contemporary art terms (and I’m putting this very crudely) a curator is someone who ‘shapes’ an exhibition, both conceptually and physically. But Judit said that she thinks her role, as a curator, is to bridge the gap between the artist, the artwork and the audience. So she’s mediating a relationship between the artwork and the audience. She’s almost interpreting or making relationships. For example, when I work with her on the MilkyWay shows, the objects there in the gallery are made by me and Tom. But when we do the exhibitions we put all of our three names there as the artists, because to me, Judit is a creative partner in MilkyWay. What she is doing is creating a narrative within the exhibition space, by making visual relationships between the artifacts that Tom and I bring to her. So I think a curator facilitates a narrative. Working with Judit, when she comes to visit me in my studio, is amazing. She is the first person who told me I was doing performance pieces for camera. She was also looking at my drawings one day and said ‘Your drawings are about time.’ I thought ‘Yes she’s right: they’re acts of endurance in terms of the making. Also some of them are done on long 20 feet rolls of paper. Because of the size of my studio, I have to work on them like a Chinese scroll, so you have to roll them back up as you go along. This means I never see the whole of them until they’re out in the gallery space. She also said that even the ones on rectangular pieces of paper are about time, because I’m engaged in a process of labour. I’m interested in the notion that ‘the energy of the making can reside in the object.’ So when I say ‘curate’ my presentation, I’m thinking about when I’m making the image stream interact with the spoken text, not the images explaining or illustrating the text, but about the relationship between the text and the image and the things that happen in that gap. It is a discursive gap. The other thing that Judit said was that ‘the gap between the object and the audience is where the art happens.’ So that’s what I’m thinking about when I prepare my presentations.
The last conference I did was ‘Impact 8. Borders and Crossings. The Artist as Explorer.’ This is a biannual conference. For that presentation, I deliberately left gaps in the text where the images picked up the narrative. So there were points in my presentation when I wasn’t speaking. It feels like the opportunities I’ve had over the last couple of years have been brilliant, but also that I am way out of my comfort zone. I just need to say, in regards to this, all the possibilities that are opening up for me now, its all come on the back of working with Tom and Judit. Working with people like that – it gives you courage.
How you time-manage all of this work?
I have to be careful. I was recently invited to be on the periphery of a big international research project, to co-host a workshop where I’d be taking orthodox academic researchers through the processes of creative research; and I’ve just been a guest lecturer on the MFA Art, Society and Publics in Dundee; other invitations too. The trouble is, I want to do everything, especially because I’ve never operated at this level before. I want to do it all. I hate to use the word ‘success’, but I’m 51 and this has all come later in life for me, so I want to do it. But I know what can happen if I get over-stressed. I can’t work full time. Because of my ‘condition’ there’s lots of sitting on the settee and crying and thinking I can’t cope. But I am lucky in that when I do get stuck in I am a very fast worker. With my writing, I can have an idea I want to write about something and then I might have months of complete writer’s block, where I try to start it and it doesn’t happen. Then I get really frustrated and suddenly sit down one day and it’ll come. Then in four days it’s done.
I think I’m somebody who’s like a coffee percolator or a teapot. I don’t think I’m working, but it’s all brewing. I’m suddenly thinking about money… Certainly I’m better off for money than I have been in years. But I still can’t afford to run a car and, if I do conferences, which I really want to do more of, I pay my own conference fees because my research isn’t supported by an institution. Also, you can have all this great stuff in the pipe line and if three things fall through at the same time… well.
So it’s important for a writer or artist who’s involved in this type of work to bear this in mind?
Absolutely. I’m really lucky in that I own my house, so I don’t have a mortgage or rent, because I certainly couldn’t live on what I’m earning if I had rent or a mortgage to pay. This might shock a lot of people. Because they can see somebody who gets invited to do a lot of high profile work. You do need to consider the outlay.
For example, the teaching in Dundee is a really good rate per day, until you take away the train fare and the days spent preparing and writing a lecture. I have a friend who’s got work in collections at the V and A, so you would think ‘Wow’, but she has to work so hard doing things like community workshops, just to make a basic living.
Could you imagine yourself doing anything else?
Never. I’m the luckiest person in the world. I have the freedom to think. No money in the world can buy that.