Visual art exhibitions and events with a platform for critical writing
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By: Katy Beinart and Rebecca Beinart
Origination emerged from our interest in genealogy, and family stories of migration.
In 2009-10, we embarked on a journey by ship, retracing the route of our ancestors from Eastern Europe to South Africa.
In 2011, we were in residence in Brixton Market, London, and followed this with a show at 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning, Brixton.
We are currently on a trip through Lithuania and Russia to continue our research.
# 53 [30 June 2011]
On Wednesday 15th June, Origination opened at 198 Contemporary Arts & Learning, the next chapter of our project. The work on show translates and re-presents the material gathered during our month-long residency in Brixton Market.
Installing the show transformed the gallery into a carpentry workshop, an electronics lab, a nursery (of plants) and a salt repository. Gradually from these various productive (if messy) areas, clarity emerged, with the work still 'in progress' but contained within distinct stations. As the exhibition took shape, we responded to the idiosyncrasies of the space, whilst the work once installed changed the gallery, giving it the feel of an experimental laboratory.
A week later, on 23rd June, invited speakers John Newling and Paul Basu came along to talk to an audience of project participants and others. Reflecting on the themes of the exhibition and the market residency, John spoke about the possibilities of markets as spaces of mystery, and fluidity, which he had explored in his Preston Market Mystery Project:
“Markets for me are places of transaction that belie the shininess of the mall and the high street, giving instead a visceral sense of the community chatting and moving through a space that is at one and the same time both ancient and contemporary. It is a fluid space, where the permanence of the architectural edifice seems to be disorientated by the transitory events it houses. It is a space of risk and mystery. In a society which has profoundly moved towards an audit of our activities, the marketplace seems a fine context in which to sell insurance against loss of mystery.”
The place of mystery, like that of the detective novel, is familiar to artists as we set out to observe and understand the world around us, to solve its riddles and puzzles. The detective work of family history, creating a series of meanings around absences, around journeys to places where nothing may be left except ruins, is a means of constructing identity, and of creating origin myths.
Our work has given salt an importance as part of our origin myth, and both John and Paul talked about the properties of salt, John mentioning its power to both protect and corrode, which seems so potent in the context of memory. Paul suggested that salt acts as a relic – it contains the substance of the place, the salt pan becoming a site of pilgrimage.
In this sense, the artwork/ installation Confabulation1 is a collection of relics, each representing (fictionally or actually) the substance of a place, or a journey. In a Handbook of Material Culture, Chris Tilley talks about how our personhood is created through objects/use of objects, and how things provide a way to understand ourselves and each other. This collection of objects is a potential starting point for a creation of shared meaning, between these 54 different histories.
Paul suggested that with the archive as place of absence, the creation of an archive or a journey towards one's roots becomes an act of fantasy. But these profound emotional journeys, akin to pilgrimage, can fill the unknown. As Paul said, looking at our family tree, it has multiple points of origin and departure – a “complex of journeying”. This defies the idea of singular roots – and suggests rather the tangled roots of belonging (like a deleuzian rhizome), the implications of which might be to question what legitimacy roots give us..but also offer up opportunities for a more collaborative approach to the mythology of origin.
With thanks to John Newling and Paul Basu.
The exhibition runs from 16th June - 5th August at 198 Contemporary Arts & Learning, 198 Railton Road, London. www.198.org.uk
1the confusion of imagination with memory, or the confused application of true memories
# 52 [23 May 2011]
Exposure and disclosure
Our first five days at the market have been wonderful, challenging and exhausting. We had a multitude of hiccups, largely involving the Lambeth Council bureaucracy – and us forgetting things. But actually being in the market and talking to people has been good, and we've heard an amazing array of stories. The experience of being on the stall all day, being so explicitly public, has a particular quality. It feels very exposing – it reminds me of the way I feel doing political campaigning and protest – you put yourself into public space and open yourself up to critique, conflict and rants, as well as incredible encounters. It's not an easy thing to do, but there's nothing quite like it and what comes of it is very unpredictable.
Having our stall, our salt pots, and offering an invitation to people to contribute something particular gives the experience more structure – a framework that the conversations hang around. But there's still an enormous variety in the way people respond and interact with the project.
I've had one conversation so far that felt contentious. It was interesting, and it was a subject that I had expected and hoped would come up. It was slightly marred by the fact that the guy who was talking with me seemed a little pissed, and was not entirely interested in listening. But he highlighted a few questions that are at the core of this project: how personal histories bring to light political histories, and overlapping stories of privilege and oppression. He took unction that we were using salt from South Africa as our currency – suggesting that our White European ancestors stole land from his African ancestors to acquire their wealth, and that this was a huge affront in a place like Brixton. The stories are so much more complex than that, and he wasn't prepared to talk about Jewish migration within this context - but issues of colonialism, race and power have to be confronted when we talk about migration. This conversation also highlighted an issue we have worked with throughout Origination, particularly in the piece 'Don't Look Back'. Delving into family history can raise things that make us hugely uncomfortable, or things that are painful and we'd rather not know. It can also raise questions of whether we are responsible for the actions of our ancestors. I think the project we're doing here in Brixton acknowledges the problematic nature of looking at our personal connection to history and politics. It is not an attempt to merrily 'celebrate multiculturalism' – it touches on raw points.
There are tensions and frictions in talking about the past. There are wounds in family histories, and it's deeply personal and sometimes painful to ask people to share these stories. Migration and cultural adaptation can often mean that people leave unwanted baggage behind. So far, forty people have stopped to share a story with us – each of these stories have involved disclosure, and the generosity of sharing something personal with a stranger. It's a huge privilege to listen and also a lot to digest.
# 51 [12 May 2011]
Getting up at 6.30am, we begin the day bleary-eyed but optimistic. Before heading down to Brixton, we have to pick up all the tools of our trade from Katy's studio, and visit the post office to retrieve an all-important envelope that we believe contains our precious Market Traders ID cards. After waiting in the sorting office for half an hour, Katy discovers that the envelope has mysteriously been re-entered into the postal system and is in a postman's bag somewhere in Hackney.
Frustrated and late, we begin our drive south, and get ensnarled in the morning rush hour. Finally we arrive at the Brixton Market office, and after quite a lot of sighing and humphing, the gentleman at the desk says that we can go ahead with our stall. But then he asks if we received a message about the Assistant’s papers. It takes me a minute to remember that's me – Katy registered as a trader and I am her assistant. After three weeks of form-filling, phone calls, and pestering Lambeth Council, it is only now that they tell me I was supposed to present them with various forms of identification before my application can be processed. So I am told that I am strictly not allowed to trade. I ask if I can hang out at the stall and he says yes... but NO trading.
The next challenge is getting a stall set up, which involves finding someone called George, who piles various bits of metal scaffold onto a cronky old cart and then assembles them on our pitch next to Stuart the Watchman. We begin to set up our stall, excited to see it finally coming together. As we lay out the empty pots Katy asks – where's the salt? And we realise we have left it back in Hackney. So Katy embarks on a two hour trek back across the city whilst I guard the stall, hoping that no-one official uncovers me as an illegitimate assistant. The Market officials who do come along are more concerned that we use accurate scales to weigh out the salt correctly than about checking my status.
By lunchtime, we are finally ready with our currency of Darling Memory Preservation Salts, and various strange pieces of recording equipment. Our Latin American neighbours feed us coffee and empanadas, and Stuart gives us lots of useful advice on how to improve our stall aesthetically and practically. And although it feels slow, we end up having a series of very interesting and occasionally bizarre conversations, and collect seven stories in exchange for salt. We hear memories of jasmine-scented courtyards in Damascus, a navigationally deft two year old riding a donkey in Jamaica, the man who used to guard the market at night and scare off thieving pigeons and a Nigerian healer whose powers have passed through the generations.
Finally at 5.30pm, we pack up our stall and trundle our wares back to Hackney through yet more (never-ending) traffic.
It's been a long day.
# 50 [5 May 2011]
After months of planning, we met again in London to begin work on the next stage of Origination. Day one of our intensive week saw us heading down to Brixton to the Market Office, to register as market traders, and entangle our selves with the complex bureaucracies of Lambeth council. We learned the art of patience and ate oranges as many forms of identification were taken. Eventually we were sent to the next office in Shakespeare Road for further verification, and were then sent out with a promise of an official ID card to follow.
After this testing experience we ventured to the Brockwell Park Community Greenhouses, to discuss our plan for a dinner party in the greenhouse. There we met Fabrice, the site manager, who explained the diverse range of plants grown on site from all over the world, and then invited us to pot up some tomato seedlings.
Day two and we set off for the Bartlett workshop to start on our translation machine, with help from artist and musician Stephen Cornford. The work was challenging, involving taking apart machines and gently adapting mechanisms through a mix of persuasion, will and pillar drills.
Later on we visited the Andrews family in Woodford, and met Mr Andrews, a clockmaker extraordinaire who showed us his amazing collection of clocks and advised us on possible mechanisms for one of our artworks.
Day three we headed for the studio to assemble materials for our market stall residency, which starts next week. We painted up a sign, found jars for our 'product', ordered backdrops and discussed systems of recording and archiving materials.
Over dinner we debated different kinds of intelligence and thought processes. Having spent the week encountering different processes of thinking and making it seemed apposite to realise how much we had strayed outside our usual comfort zones or patterns of making art to tread into new territories, ones we are certain to delve deeper into in the weeks to come.
# 49 [8 February 2011]
We just found out that our grant application for the next stage of the 'Origination' project was a success. We will be undertaking a residency in Brixton market this summer, working with local communities to explore Brixton's rich history of migration, and generating new work for an exhibition and series of events at 198 Contemporary Art and Learning.
Yesterday we had our first planning meeting, and the ideas began to fly. We wandered around Brixton market, and came upon answers to many desires – from exotic food to eyebrow threading, popcorn to cobblers, and 'Jinx Removing' salts, to rid your home and body of evil spirits.
'In the Middle Ages markets often provided opportunities for liminal encounter. Not only were they the territory of commercially minded merchants selling the essential requisites of life – but they also provided a fertile ground for the peddlars of mystery; the relic sellers who proffered a glimpse of saintly bones, or the chance of touching a fragment of the true cross...' (Introduction by Rev Dr Richard Davey, in Newling, 2007)
The idea of 'relics' is intriguing, as it touches on ideas we have already worked with around trying to capture ghosts, or create presences of something absent. Hetherington (2003) writes about 'praesentia', an encounter with the presence of an absence, as a way to explain the power of relic. He also writes about relics as forms of translation, bringing the far (in time, or space) to the near – but also a way of translating between cultures as migrants settle in new worlds.
Our intention for this new phase of Origination is not to leave behind our own family story, but to move outward from it – by collecting and translating between our own and other's histories, finding new ways to represent migrant histories, and migrant ghosts, that all too often vanish into the complexity of the city. For ghosts are not just specters of the past, they can also refer to the present: as Maria del Pilar Blanco and Esther Pereen write, “ghost has become an increasingly appropriate metaphor for the way marginal populations haunt the everyday, living on the edge of visibility and inspiring a curious mix of fear and indifference.”
The market stalls full of magic spells, healing plants and herbs and strange relics provide a starting point for contacting these ghosts of the past and present.
Kevin Hetherington (2003) Spatial Textures: place, touch and praesentia. In Environment and Planning vol 35
John Newling (2007) An Essential Disorientation
Maria del Pilar Blanco and Esther Pereen (2010), Popular Ghosts: The Haunted Spaces of Everyday Culture
# 48 [12 October 2010]
Over the summer, we continue to explore cultural transference, and migration. Rebecca's work in Loughborough for Radar consists of creating a new starter culture, one made from local yeasts and distributed amongst residents who keenly take on the task of baking bread. The project, Exponential Growth, begins to snowball, and requests come in from people outside Loughborough itself, so that our cultures are now spreading beyond the UK, to Germany, South Africa, USA and elsewhere. An article about Starter Culture features on The Fresh Loaf, a blog about bread making, and brings further encounters from far afield.
Meanwhile, I experience a literal migration, leaving home and moving to London, a process of letting go but also returning – to Bethnal Green, once the home of our grandfather Michael, his parents Moishe and Sarah Schreibmann and their 8 children. In coming back to a place that was once our family home, I become a revenant; a returnee, but also a phantom from another era trying to superimpose myself on a past that has all but vanished. Derrida writes of the duality of 'revenant'; meaning both coming back, returning and also a ghost or phantom (The Work of Mourning, 2001), and I wonder if a ghost from the future can haunt the past.
I walk to Grimsby street, off Brick Lane, on the day of the 10th anniversary of my grandfathers death. The house he lived in, a Victorian terrace slum opposite the railway arches, is gone, as are the railway arches, conquered by a monumentally concrete overland line that seems to hover ominously over these huddled streets. I leave a bunch of flowers tied to the railings and a card in memory of my grandfather, and am disorientated by a sense of immanence, a momentary feeling of time being very thin, almost immaterial. Coming to live in London, I am constantly disorientated by this feeling of familiarity and yet strangeness, of belonging and not belonging.
“Disorientation is a change of the relationship between time, place and person. Throughout history, people have been consciously engaged in inducing a state of disorientation. … We seem to need times of disorientation, whether self-induced or as a consequence of situations where disorientation is embedded in the event. (…) The disorientation of the liminal process involves place, time and self to be open to new experiences and new knowledge. Disorientation is a condition of the self that can allow new links to be considered; a kind of bridge that slips between seemingly unconnected experiences and events.” (Newling, 2007)
My new flatmate tells me the German word for arrival - ankommen – which means “the time it takes for you to arrive”. Perhaps my disorientation is due to being in this liminal period, having left one home, and not yet feeling fully arrived in the next. I imagine this is akin to the feeling my great-grandparents experienced upon their arrival in London, and yet for me it is at least a known place, a known language, a known culture.
There is a continual pull back and forth between homing and disorientating, between finding a source or place of knowledge then shaking it off to face the unknown again, to begin the search again. The idea of homing in on a truth or an idea, is one of searching for specificity. It is an act of orientation. We associate home with a certainty, a knowledge, a source.
Homing is the opposite of exponential growth, of expansion. In a sense this mirrors the activity of genealogical research, and of family, in both directions: searching further and further in the past towards a place of origination, or going from that point of origin into the future, the gradual expansion and scattering of family from a place that was once home. In our present, we are like a lens, a focal point from which this past and future expands infinitesimally, the point of connection between these myriad lives and dwelling-places.
John Newling, An Essential Disorientation, 2007
Derrida, The Work of Mourning, 2001
William Goldman, East End My Cradle, 1940
# 47 [12 July 2010]
Though I have missed you so very much
I am standing outside Hull Paragon Station, holding a sign in my hands. Slowly people gravitate towards me. A gentleman in a straw hat walks up to me, and not looking at my face, says haltingly ‘Though… I have missed you… so very much’.
This is how it begins, a walking tour of Hull, animated by fragments of lives played out in these streets at the turn of the 20th century. A group of sixteen has gathered for the tour, and luckily a woman in a floral dress hears the phone box next to us ringing quietly, a summons from Katy to come and meet her on platform 4, the original "emigrants platform".
For two hours we explore Hull, asking each of the walkers to carry an envelope, which is addressed to a particular location. At these locations, they open the envelopes and discover one of Edith’s postcards, a photograph or artefact relating to that site. Katy and I weave together the stories of our family and these places, in the context of the 2.2 million emigrants who passed through Hull from the 1850s – 1910s.
As the walk meanders through the city centre and down to the docks, we become increasingly involved in the tales of Edith's and her best friend Dolly's lives, and separation through migration. We encounter ships, waiting rooms, concert halls, a music box, a lost locket, lost gardens, a drowned synagogue and a forgotten brother.
There’s a profound sadness that emerges from tracing vanished lives in a contemporary landscape. But there is also a humour as secrets are revealed and interpretations of the missing facts are offered. Most of the people who join us for the tour are of our parents generation, or older, and the readings we include about memory and forgetting seem to resonate strongly for them. We end the tour at the docks, looking out at the murky Humber and the wide open sky. I pour everyone a shot of vodka, and as we raise our glasses to ‘all those who have passed’ Katy reads us a quote from Sebald:
‘Memory, he added in a postscript, often strikes me as a kind of dumbness. It makes one's head heavy and a giddy, as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down on the earth from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds.’ The Emigrants, W G Sebald.
Though I have missed you so very much was part of Humber Mouth: the Hull Literature festival
# 46 [12 July 2010]
“Memory, like the mind and time, is unimaginable without physical dimensions; to imagine it as a physical place is to make it into a landscape in which its contents are located, and what has location can be approached. That is to say, if memory is imagined as a real space...then the act of remembering is imagined as a real act…”
We have installed our exhibition at Artlink in Hull, a gallery on Princes’ Avenue, in an area of town that still has remnants of Edwardian finery. Walking up the avenues with their spacious houses and ornate fountains in the middle of the road allows us to imagine the Hull where Great-grandmother Edith spent her youth, a wealthy town with a busy harbour, through which many migrants passed en route to America and South Africa. In other parts of town it is harder to see Hull’s past: it was one of the most severely bomb-damaged cities in the second world war, has lost a lot of its traditional industry, and has suffered a lot of redevelopment, including innumerable concrete shopping centres and car parks.
Travelling up to the north-east over the past few months, peering behind the concrete, we find clues about our ancestors. There’s a fantastic history centre where we look at maps of Hull from the 19th century, and see the plans of a long-disappeared Botanic Gardens. We find the 1901 census that record the Pearlman’s lives in Hull. We visit the neglected Jewish cemetery where Great-great-great-grandfather Filaratoff is buried. And using Edith’s post-card collection, we find what remains of the places that have entered out imaginations through the faded photos and looped handwriting of messages written over 100 years ago.
At Artlink we show some of the work we created in Cape Town, reconfigured for this environment. We have also produced new work, drawing on Edith’s life and local histories. Adaptation is a travelling plant case, based on the Wardian case used by Victorian plant collectors to transport rare finds to a new environment. The case contains four South African plants, whose names combine to make a ‘living letter’. Floriography, the Victorian ‘language of flowers’ designated particular meaning to specific flowers, to create coded messages of love and longing.
Ghost writing is an installation that develops an idea that we explored in South Africa: the physical act of writing by hand and the traces left by the letters and postcards of a generation of migrants. Farewell Concert refers to Edith’s skill as a concert pianist, and the concert she gave before leaving Hull for South Africa. We often select certain pieces of music to act as markers for moments in our life, or as requiems for a particular time or a person who is no longer with us.
Much of the work in this show can be transformed back into luggage, ready for a continued journey. We project the film Offere in a suitcase, a small mobile cinema that can be folded down and carried away in a few minutes. More than a century ago our family unpacked their bags in Hull and made it their home. Then after just one generation they packed up again and left. We return, looking for a place to touch, a place to locate memory.
 Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust- A History of Walking
# 45 [15 April 2010]
Salting the Earth
So our time in Cape Town draws to an end, and we start to pack up our belongings, take down our studio, say our goodbyes. It doesn't feel like we are leaving never to return, although we both know that coming back would be different. I see this text in the Malmesbury Museum:
“May your gates be open always.
Day and night.
May they never be closed.”
I realise that endings are never full stops. Instead we leave doors open everywhere we go, possibilities of return, possibilities of friendships and relationships left behind to be re-established, ideas still to be explored; but the context, the time, will never be quite the same.
Unlike our ancestors, we are going back. We can return to our lives in Europe, but we have changed, subtly. I think about the redpill/bluepill choice in The Matrix. Having taken the risk, explored the possibility of other lives, is it impossible to go back to familiar, comfortable, known modes of identity and existence?
On our last day in Cape Town, we drive out along Chapmans Peak Drive. It is a stunningly clear day, endless blue skies and ocean stretching out into the distance. We stop at the highest point and ceremonially throw the salt from our installation out over the cliffs and the ocean. It feels like a goodbye, but also like investing ourselves into the earth. A little bit of us belonging here, remaining here. Salting the earth.
Part of leaving is having to get rid of the material possessions we have accumulated, and at the airport we discover that we have to lose some of our baggage or pay the excess. So we offer up our possessions to the airport, to whoever might find them. We leave “Romeo and Juliet” at La Senza, take “Great Expectations” to the World Cup souvenir shop, donate Isaac Bashevis Singer to the Esoteric section of the bookshop and leave the rice paper on a café table. Our final activity as they call for boarding is to eat the remaining black bread from the Malmesbury event with salt from the pans, and leave Woolf's name on the table.
Travelling from England to South Africa took us 26 days, and travelling back takes us less than 26 hours. Rebecca tells me that there is a Native American Indian belief that your soul only travels at walking pace, so if you travel faster then it takes a while for your soul to catch up with you. We travel about 6000 miles in a day and I arrive feeling like a part of me is definitely still somewhere in Africa.
England feels grey, white, cold, disorientatingly familiar. Home doesn't feel like home. Is this what it is like to be a migrant, to not belong anymore, in the new home or the old? Gradually I settle back in, I listen to the radio, read the paper, walk in the muddy green fields. But I am carrying ghosts within me, not just ancestral ghosts, but the ghosts of place – I dream of the mountain, of dusty red earth, and razor sharp light striking through the curtains in the morning. I understand now our rituals as we left. They were funeral rites, acts in anticipation of mourning.
# 44 [8 April 2010]
The last supper
It’s our final weekend in South Africa and we are hosting an event at Malmesbury Museum: the old Jewish Synagogue where our family used to worship. We spend Saturday evening preparing borscht and black bread for the performance. Dad is in Cape Town for a few days and we keep him busy chopping vegetables and making almond biscuits.
A group made up of family, members of the Museum’s management committee, and artists from Greatmore studios join us for the event. We set up a dinner table at the far end of the museum, where a board displays information about the Beinart family and the rest of Malmesbury’s once-flourishing Jewish community. There is something very special about being able to perform an event in this space: it is a site that is so strongly connected to the stories we have been hunting, a space at once familiar and strange to us.
Katy and I read texts taken from our letters to each other. The words feel particularly resonant in this place, and frame the conversations that follow as we share borscht and black bread with our guests. The simple act of eating together and asking each person to propose a toast to one of their ancestors forms a ritual in which significant fragments are shared. It is a moving and meaningful way to close our time here.
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Katy Beinart is an interdisciplinary artist whose work examines themes of history, identity and place. Her practice is research based and site-specific, often evolving through a participatory process. She is currently doing a PhD in Research by Architectural Design at the Bartlett, University College London.
Rebecca Beinart makes transportable artworks, live works, and interventions into public space. Her research often takes the form of journey-making, and her artwork draws from the unpredictability of encounters with people and places. Her live works create conversational spaces, in which audience-participants are as much the makers as the viewers of a piece.