The Telling the Baltic ( TTB ) Artist Workshop I recently hosted at BTH with my Art Line colleagues over the past two weeks has been exceptionally interesting and creatively stimulating—which also means I’ve been totally exhausted most days. That said, having a group of artists and story-collectors in the same room together for such an intense, concentrated period to share their work and to develop ideas for building this grand touring exhibition is really a luxury.
The breadth of stories collected from the different partners in their different areas of the Baltic has been fascinating. I’ve listened, totally enrapt, these weeks to the presentations of what we have been calling “raw materials” (that is the stories we’ve collected, in video, photographic, and text formats that will be the basis for the artists’ rendering into exhibition pieces) and to the artists’ talks about their practices and initial ideas for development. And so, in my ”raw” story-induced rapture, I have been transported to many sites and watery insights about the Baltic and what it has to tell and how it can inspire. As we suspected, the Baltic turns out to be an exceptional story-teller and evocative agent for abstraction.
Raw is, in fact, an apt term for what the stories we have collected convey, but only if that means the rawness that is a kind of richness of information—that is information that has not yet been distilled down or processed (as in a RAW image format). In this sense it is bigger still than what the artists will use to create what can only in its latter state be seen as selective rendering, an abstraction. This story rawness is pretty full on, and it’s hard to consider what might be left behind if/when the raw stories become abstract art, as if there is a clear difference between the two. Listening to one artist at the workshop (whom I respected, but with whom I nonetheless disagreed) characterize the stories as “only information” that must be separately “archived” (in a database or in a library-setting) as opposed to the art works that naturally should be on exhibition given their more abstract form, made me realize why this project interested me in the first place: ontological /aesthetic/philosophical/interdisciplinary conundrums excite me. . .
What is a story, anyway and how can we mediate it without somehow changing or intervening in it? What does it mean to render a story, in art, in digital space, or in the embodied act of listening to it? Of course mediation is always a factor in these interactions, and we are participants in all that we hear; this is both a theoretical and ontological reality fundamental to the theories of material mediation I teach—but in this case I am actively impacted by what that means, particularly when art and story are so closely connected, and yet somehow still opposed in this project. When confronted with the material fact of designing an exhibition space (or contributing to its design), this theoretical musing becomes more pragmatically engaging. Oh, what to do with these stories?
In the project, we separate easily into story-collectors and artists by our actions and the tasks we have set for ourselves (story-collectors gather, then artists make), but the raw materials we work with are not so clearly discernible when we isolate them from those tasked with their mediation and rendering.
And sometimes we have decided (or were forced to consider through material experiences that stubbornly resisted separation) that the artists and story-collectors should be necessarily the same person. They could not (or would not) divide into hunting/gathering and then making phases …
For me, the interviews with male and female lighthouse keepers in Poland, with articulate Swedish fishermen concerned with sustainable fishing practices, Lithuanian crow eaters (literally, those that eat the birds, and not in an idiomatic sense), with sailors and seamen of all nationalities who share their sexist superstitions about women on- and off-board (whistling women are the worst) is like being in the middle of some lovely, immersive mythic archive of oddity, history and fantasy—that is, the best possible of all raw archives. It is too much (to be processed) and too rich to be identified as in need of more artistry and abstraction.
And so in the workshop, a central concern for me (but for some others as well) has been to discuss ways to represent and share the stories we have collected, as well as the art derived from them, within the exhibitions we have planned. How can we make the stories accessible and dynamic and how can we be sure in an “art” exhibition that they are not subverted or viewed as a lesser kind of “raw,” as objective information vs. arty abstraction?
How can we share the stories with others in ways that encourage immersion and connection with the people of the Baltic who bothered to talk to us (but who are also generally bemused by, or just confused about, our interest in their “ordinary” lives)? Outside of a kind of traditional “media library” of sources through which visitors to the exhibitions can browse, how may we encourage them to spend time with the stories and find further connection with the art? It’s a dilemma I think we will continue exploring, but I am encouraged that others share my struggle with this.
Intimacy with others via their stories is a challenge in a public exhibition space, as is the act of “shared reading” (however we characterize this slippery act, as slow and private, or shared and embodied). I don’t expect we’ll solve this problem, actually, but I hope to embrace it and see how it flows. Thankfully, we have several exhibitions to explore the possibilities and see where we are led.