'Art In Boxes' Seminar (20 minute talk) - Marjolaine Ryley
('Art in Boxes' was a series of seminars for invited speakers and MA students held at PARC (Photography & the Archive Research Centre) at London College of Communication, University of the Arts, London.)
As you know I am currently Research Fellow here at PARC. I began my application by writing the following:
"Is the way photographs are collected and stored changing forever as the digital age takes an ever-firmer grip on traditional snap-shot photography? The magic of discovering a box full of dusty, faded old photographs under a deceased relatives bed has a magic and poignancy to it that has changed little with the passage of time. But how will we examine a legacy left on-line a personal collection out there in the ether. Squabbles over who gets to keep the pictures could be a thing of the past however the tangible objects we so love to hold may soon disappear altogether. Is the family gathered around the slide projector in order to view an obsessive grandfather's travels through China a thing of the past? Is this indeed the last picture show?"
My research sets out to investigate this statement and perhaps answer some of these questions. For this short talk I will focus on the relationship between photographs and shoeboxes, the digital dimension will be touched upon within this.
At around the same time that I was submitting my application I was invited to take part in the 'shoebox show', the exhibition Between the Sole and the Heal.
Initially I struggled to come up with an idea. Because I felt that there was such an intrinsic link and binding association between the photograph and the shoe box I felt that any use of photography in relation to the shoebox would be to obvious, even clichéd.
However the more I considered this and the more I began to ask why this connection exists, the more interested I became in creating a piece that utilised and even exploited this marriage.
Before I show you the work I created I want to spend a little time considering the shoebox/photograph relationship further. So - why do people associate photographs and shoeboxes and why do they keep photographs in shoeboxes? I hope you will be able to help me answer this? Sometimes we need to begin by asking obvious questions.
Shoeboxes are just about the correct size to house peoples' family snaps, usually machine n-prints that are 5 x 7 or 6 x 4. They can hold lots of packets of photographs or loose photographs together.
They can act as a transitory storage place before they come to rest, edited, in a family album.
We all have them. Going barefoot is not an option and so we all end up with shoeboxes. Also, it's hard to throw things away, after all that box may come in handy.
Perhaps there is also a secret enjoyment in the disorder of a shoebox. Images mix together randomly avoiding the order and repetition of an album.
In the BBC book (following the series) Who Do You Think You Are? The author Dan Wadell even goes so far as to offer the following advice when discussing tracing your relatives:
"Family photographs are helpful too even though at first glance they may not seem to contain any useful information. Heirlooms include war medals and press cuttings: be wary, these artefacts, old family photographs for example may need careful looking after away from direct light, heat and damp. A good idea is to find an old shoebox to keep them in. If any heirlooms are damaged, or require restoration seek professional help rather than getting creative with glue and sticky tape."
So it is of course a good idea to care for our images, to store them somewhere safe. To treasure them in fact. To keep them safe because they are things of value.
According to the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, the relationship between human beings and intimate domestic spaces such as chests, drawers, wardrobes, and cupboards is perhaps more complex than it seems. (I would add types of boxes including shoeboxes to his list). Bachelard writes:
"Wardrobe's with their shelves, desks with their drawers, and chests with their false bottoms are veritable organs of the secret psychological life. Indeed without these "objects" and a few others in equally high favor, our intimate life would lack a model of intimacy. They are hybrid objects, subject objects. Like us, through us and for us, they have a quality of intimacy."
"A wardrobe's inner space is also an intimate space , space that is not open to just anybody."
A box may also be a personal, intimate space.
Just as the squirrel buries his treasured nuts so also humans 'bury' things: jewellery, letters, photographs, secrets in boxes, drawers, under beds... So perhaps the family album that is offered for public display forms a different function. The shoe box my be a place of secrecy a place for a personal hidden collection.
If we think of the shoebox as being fundamentally a container perhaps we can delve a little deeper into what it really means to put images within it.
Intimate immensity and the imagination
In talking about memory and the way our minds house this, Bachelard quotes Henri Bergson when he writes:
"Here and there in the brain, keep-sake boxes that preserve fragments of the past."
The act of putting photographs away in boxes insures our memories are kept safe. So a box can be an intimate container and the box as an aid to memory surfaces often. In an article in the Guardian's 'Family' section recently on helping children who have experienced the loss of a parent or sibling, Joanna Moorhead talks about ways in which children can be helped:
"They need to express their grief through art and play: one exercise ... involves the child using different colours of sand to represent the character of the person who's gone, and then putting them into a glass jar as a keep-sake. Another idea is to help children create a memory box: small children especially, tend to like objects that retain the smell of their dead parent or sibling."
What an incredible but obvious thought - a memory box...and no doubt we all have them. The idea of aiding our memories is present in everyday life, on a day-to-day basis as well.
Bachelard goes on to discuss another writer Henri Bosco and to use the example of one of his characters - Monsieur Carre-Benoit. Benoit has a solid oak filing cabinet, which he was deeply attached too.
"And what a marvellous tool! It replaced everything, memory as well as intelligence. In this well-fitted cube there was not an iota of haziness or shiftiness. Once you had put something in it, even if you put it a hundred or ten thousand more times, you could find it again in the twinkling of an eye as it were. Fort-eight drawers! Enough to hold an entire well-classified world of knowledge. M.Carre-Beniot attributed a sort of magic power to these drawers concerning which he said they were the foundations of the human mind."
Bachelard goes on to praise Bosco's description "for with this filing cabinet he has succeeded in embodying the dull administrative spirit."
The fear of loosing things, our lack of trust that our memories will remain with us, our anxieties about the order of our mental faculty - all of these drive us to create a world of order around us with things contained, filed, boxed, box-filed and neat and tidy. Out of sight and out of mind but easily available at a moments need. The chaotic domestic arrangements of so many must surely contribute to their chaotic lives and inner states! But of course there is also creative chaos and 'dull administrators'.
Bachelard talks about an example of the box and secrecy. A novelist describes how a father tries to decide between giving his daughter a silk scarf or a Japanese box. He decides on the box, as it is more suited to her reserved nature. "This young girl receives implicit permission from her father to hide her secrets; that is to say conceal her mystery."
Shoe Box Memories - The On-Line Shoebox
The association is indeed deeply ingrained in our western consciousness. Type 'shoebox' into google and a proliferation of websites and webloggs abound. Shoe Box Memories, my personal favourite, offers to free your images allowing you to create slide shows, DVDs etc.
There are sites that allow you to show your work / 'portfolio' described as artists' shoeboxes. And sites where the shoebox found under the bed has now been liberated scanned in its entirety and put online for all to see. Shoebox 1.5 is a software programme designed to better iPhoto. It is the ultimate filing system for your on line images - ironic as a shoe box is hardly the height of organization?
Or is it? As we have seen, it seems the shoebox is natural home of the photograph not just because they physically contain the images but because they metaphorically contain the memories that are connected with the images.
The internet explodes the personal, self-contained private collection out onto centre stage for all to see. As our private lives become increasingly public, as reality TV encourages people to tell all and the sex inspectors are allowed into people's bedrooms should we be surprised that the internet abounds with personal, now very public, weblogs, websites and the millions of images within them. 'New' families on the net may well have replaced the break down of the nuclear family. Genealogy is a hugely popular pursuit.
In Who Do You Think You Are? we are told that genealogy is the third most popular pursuit on the internet (behind personal finance and, er, porn). My favourite is Dead Fred.
Websites abound - you are practically railroaded into feeling you must trace your long lost relatives or else. And the terminology of all these sites is still about memories and shoeboxes!
All you need is imagination and a bit of glue varnish...
So, for my shoe box I decided to embark upon something quite challenging. I had a few ideas initially - creating a miniature filing system or filling my box with images of my box - but I decided to return to the good old world of craft.
After considerable research I purchased a bottle of UHU creativ'. I had decided to attempt the Victorian craft of decoupage. Decoupage comes from the French word meaning to cut. Is also known by other terms - in Italy known as Arte Povero "poor man's art". I was relieved to read the blurb, as it was with some trepidation that I regarded the event. "Welcome to the wonderful world of creative handicrafts. With imagination and skill you will be able to make all kinds of decorative items. UHU creativ' would like to help you - with a range of great ideas and adhesives. You don't need to be a gifted artist to be able to decorate all kinds of objects in a creative way. Even printed serviettes or tissue paper can take the place of paint and brush. All you need is imagination and a bit of glue varnish..."
Villa Mona In Miniature
So I used the link between box and image and created a physical object, a shoebox that would have images physically rendered to the surface. Bound irreversibly together.
The images that are glued / varnished onto my shoebox are from the series Villa Mona, a body of work which is very much about exploring domestic space, the world of the interior and the gendered roles of the house's inhabitants in relation to the space they occupy. Villa Mona is a family holiday home on the Belgian coast, a place that myself, my mother and my grandmother have all spent parts of our childhood in.
I liked the link between the gendered roles of men and women in the Villa Mona and the female hobbies like decoupage undertaken by Victorian Women. In her essay 'The Pattern of Work', Judith Flanders writes:
"With more and more servants available to the newly prosperous middle classes, many Victorian Women retreated from the drudgery of housework. Industries grew up to provide these newly unoccupied, newly bored women with ways of killing time. Hobbies - or, as women rather sadly referred to them, their 'work' - were mostly craft-based, and entirely focused on the home."
Women were also charged with keeping family albums and they also kept extensive scrap-books - decoupage bridges / combines these activities.
I loved the idea of the box becoming a kind of miniature house and the reference to the dolls house. I liked the feeling of the interior particularly being wallpapered with images. The wallpaper often featured in the Villa Mona images. I like the idea of a house of secrets, buried treasure, memories, which is how I experience the Villa Mona. These are now embedded on the box and in the box but could also be put inside the box.
You can also discuss the box and house in relation to the dialectics of inside and outside, miniature and the imagination, and the house and the universe, areas Bachelard has also explored in 'The Poetics of Space'
I talked earlier in my RDF statement about the serendipity of the shoebox discovery. I think you still get this as you turn the box, open it, look inside. I included the quote for those who went as far as looking underneath the box as and finally underneath. A quote by Walter Benjamin reads:
"For the private man, the phantasmagoria of the interior represents the universe. In the interior, he brings together the far away and the long ago? The arcades and the interieurs, the exhibition halls and panoramas: they are the residues of a dream world."
I would like to conclude with a quote by Bachelard talking about the casket / container (box) and the imagination.
"Sometimes a lovingly fashioned casket has interior perspectives that change constantly as a result of daydream. We open it and discover that it is a dwelling place, that a house is hidden in it!"