Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Tool Talk

"With perspectives from archaeology, performance and movement-based research, Labour Movements hosts a conversation on how we decipher, read and interpret tools and their relationship to our bodies."

Should I be surprised that there are other people who are interested and have researched into the symbolism, interpretation and significance of tools?  I'm delighted to discover that there are. Not only does that reaffirm some things I had often thought but it also invites an opportunity to learn some new things too.

On Sunday 1st September I went to The Parlour Showrooms in Bristol to attend a tea break talk discussing, "Tools of the City and Movements of Work"
 A brief bit of context: this talk was part of the 'In the City Series', a six week long programme of performance and events running from July to December exploring the themes of making, working and walking (to name a few) within the context of re-imagining ‘The City'. The talk I attended was part of 'Working in the City' and co-produced by KWMC and The Showroom Projects with the talk co-curated by Cara Davies and Labour Movements.

The Venue -Parlour Showrooms, Bristol

I heard of this event through, Paul Hurley, a performance artist working with the theme along with fellow performance artist, Clare Thornton working collaboratively to create a series of performances based on movements/actions associated with tool use/misuse. I had worked alongside Paul on the Context residency at Somerset College around three years ago. Back then I can remember the shamanistic-like use and importance that Paul placed upon what were fairly mundane artefacts; a broken umbrella, a foil space blanket, a cycling helmet, cricket pads and in my own way (through drawing) sharing a common interest or perhaps belief (if you want to call it that) that everyday things had an importance, mysticism or resonance that somehow elevated them just beyond mere things of use.
Being still fascinated, if somewhat haunted by tools as subject matter in my own art work (you are reading 'A Spanner in the Workz) I did what any good tool obsessed, blog wielding, bookseller would do and went to investigate...

The following is admittedly a fragmented report that is my attempt to recall what was discussed along with some thoughts of where it sits within my own practice. 

Fuelled by copious amounts of tea and biscuits a small collective of 18 people attended the event inside the Parlour Showrooms (which is basically an empty shop space that is used for temporary exhibitions situated on College Green in Bristol). I liked the informal atmosphere of being surrounded by other people's tools (see photos) on the walls and sitting on wooden benches and having mugs of tea. It all seemed more relaxed and fitting (in a DIY sense) to the nature of the conversation.   Hosted by Cara Davies, PHD student and featuring two speakers the conversation began in laying some foundations:

 What is labour? What are tools and how do we interpret them? To be discussed from archaeological and bodily perspectives.

 Speaker number one was going to discuss tools from an archaeological perspective, discussing the interpretation and typology of tools (how things turn into other things over time i.e. Can be seen in the evolution of bowls or spoons in Pitt Rivers). How do we identify, describe and use tools? In turn who decides the correct/incorrect use of tools, is there a hierarchy of tool use and a more political look at how tools control and need to be controlled. All pretty ambitious to cover in a forty-ish minute conversation methinks and that is probably my only criticism of the event, that it promised more than it actually delivered (breadth rather than depth). However, maybe that’s not entirely fair as it was only supposed to be a conversation and in many ways opened up some interesting discussion and points I had not previously considered.

 Anyway, the group were given four scenarios which presented different ways in which ‘tools’ are used, for example, a macaque washing a potato in a stream is an example of using nature (in this case the stream) like a tool. The other examples included tools that have to be learnt or that knowledge is required to use them, tools which are intentionally broken as a symbol for the misuse of tools and lastly people referring to themselves (the body as well as politically*) as tool. Those examples were given as a way of opening up our interpretation of what a tool ‘can be’ when we think about the tools used to create the city, populate it and influence its structures of control, navigation, identity and so forth.
The concept of mega tools and micro tools was presented with mega tools being tools which control such as roads, traffic lights, keep out signs and anti-climb paint. Whereas micro tools act against mega tools and are more about how we use our bodies in ‘tool-like’ ways such as creating desire lines, open footpaths, guerrilla gardening, using muscle memory. This doesn’t mean they are always necessarily always in opposition to mega tools but are a kind of cause and effect of the controls that mega tools induce. I wonder how these see-saws of conflict are balanced or attempted to be controlled by those in power. Graffiti is another example of breaking tools, in the sense that a spray paint can wasn’t originally intended to paint walls but was used that way as a form of taking ownership, creating individuality in a public space. In that way tools also become a form of creating ‘self’ as we identify in different ways with different objects.

It wasn't all serious, we also had time to play 'Guess What It Does', with this selection of odd tools.  No prizes however for guessing that the best answers were actually the ones that turned out to be wrong.

The conversation flowed into more of a discussion into using tools and the misuse of them. And it is this thread of conversation that brings us on to speaker two, Sang-Gye, a Tactile Responsiveness Therapist who presents a more bodily awareness of the actions associated with tool use. As a practicing Buddhist and as part of her therapy she treats people holistically, mind and body are linked as one and explains that when we are born we have no physical habits and that actions and how to hold things/use them are learned and in turn can be mis-learned (if there is such a thing as mis-learning a tool? As it is surely only through mis-use that new things are created?). This is similar to how an apprentice has to learn, experience and experiment to become skillful at using a tool previously unlearned. She explains gesture is learned and in turn gesture turns into a habit of movement and movement becomes posture and posture changes your body (we shape our tools and therefore our tools shape us –in this case physically, but also in terms of identity).

 It was interesting to hear what people had to say about their own relationships/experiences with tools of their trade and how the physicality often associated with those actions is now being replaced with new technology, screens and touch-based operation systems. This led to discussing how people learn to use tools correctly, to let it do the work, so-much-so that if done properly you actually forget the tool altogether. Queue Natalie stage right.  "In my own practice using a tool (ie a hammer) to create a drawing, the repetitive action of using the hammer made me increasingly less aware of the hammer itself and more aware of the materiality of the carbon I was hitting to create the drawing." Although all this talk of the action and gesture involved in using tools did make me wonder again whether performance is a more effective medium to convey both the physicality of tool use in a way that draws attention to both the tool and its function in unison? I was also surprised at how elegantly simple ways of presenting tools hung up in a white space also works really well at drawing attention to the objects.

The conversation ended how it began except with fewer biscuits and the addition of even more questions, but we had been on an interesting journey that had raised some new ideas and ways of thinking which would have never been generated if not for the curation of the conversation and prompting of discussion which all in all was good. Maybe we would all think differently about how we moved through the city on our way home, how we were going to use that shovel properly next time we were gardening or spend less time using digital tools and start using real ones more often? And at the very least had all come to the profound realisation that, 'hey there are other people that like tools as much as me'. Weird!

Retrospectively my thoughts are that the simplicity of how the tools were presented on the walls within the space somehow helped prompt such thought provoking and interesting discussions. It made me wonder if maybe in my own practice should I have written or talked about tools, made sound recordings of tools instead of forcing to convey it through drawing or representation? Generally speaking, is the simplest idea always the most effective one? But then I don't think I was ever dedicated enough to the idea of tools as I was to drawing, painting, mark-making, printing and the substance of all that archetypal art stuff which provided  a limitless source of joy and self-expression. There has always been an on-going conflict between the two and whilst my hands and things I drew with were in ways tools it still never seemed enough to justify the reasoning to draw tools. On the other hand, my work has always had the look of being laboured (lots of mark-making, gesture, large scale) and maybe that in itself is somehow synonymous of the work associated with tools as objects of use? It’s clear that this subject isn’t going to go away any time soon and remains something of a personal mission that instead of reaching any conclusion continues to be picked-up and battled with. Only the medium has changed to words rather than paint these days. Things could get messy!

Find out more about The Parlour Showrooms and future 'In the City Series' events via the links below:

Not forgetting websites of the participating artists themselves:

*NOTE TO SELF an example of this being: “The Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house” –quote from Civil Rights Activist, Audre Lorde

No comments:

Post a Comment