Friday, 20 April 2012

Talk: Gail Hornstein & Bobby Baker

Gail Hornstein (author of Agnes’ Jacket, below) and Bobby Baker (author of Diary Drawings) in conversation at the Whitworth Art Gallery

I would travel over Siberian plains and up to the foothills of Popacatapetl to hear Gail Hornstein talk (below).

Her sensible, rich ways with words combined with a vast well of knowledge and a lifetime of teaching and writing combine to make a fabulous listen.
Here she was talking to Bobby Baker, mistress of all things performance-art- with-food-ish and creator of Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me, among other things, which was the subject of an exhibi- tion at the Wellcome Institute Gallery in London in 2009.
This talk was an initiative platformed by CIDRA of the University of Manchester – a cross-disciplinary group throughout the university trying to get arts, technology and science to interweave more ( my interpretation!).
Bobby Baker (now in her 60s) (see below) has been a performance artist for many years, and was hit by a paralyzing anxiety in the late 90s. Her anguish was only partly alleviated by ‘distraction and sleep’. Sizzling talk – Bobby ‘found cake’ in the early 70s and made work (often food related) after her own experience.
When she collapsed psychologically in the late 90s she self referred to a day centre for 3 weeks (which turned into 11 years)..Out of her psychic pain came 711 drawings, which were pruned by Bobby and her daughter for the very successful exhibition at the Wellcome (reviewed in Equilibrium 2009 Autumn along with Agnes’ Jacket – see www.
photograph: Katherine Rose/Observer

Gail’s story of Agnes jacket (embroidered by Agnes in an asylum in the early 1900s) and many others telling their stories and trying to make sense of non-sense is a gem; it stands alone as a testimony and testament to those with- out mainstream voices.
‘trying to capture the inarticulable’.
So many questions came out of the discussion – if you’re mad are you always mad? ( I would answer a strong no to that – but many are told they are irrecoverable by the profs). Is’outsider art’ a commodification? Why should people be scapegoated? What does a diagnosis do? Where is recovery? How can one find ways to be understood and loved?
Another strand was a fascinating discourse on what is fiction? What are lies? How much of peoples’ stories are crafted and constructed – what is the ‘truth value’? Why are so many people not believed?
The next day I went (masquerading as a post- grad) to a Masterclass at the University of Manchester. After the doling out of a bacon sandwich by Gail to a welcome punter, I was pinned to my chair with awe at the company (inc the revered Griselda Pollock, maitresse d’ of cultural studies), and deep and wondrous ideas flew around the room.
How to speak the unspeakable? Art lead- ing to transformation – how to negotiate the transport station of trauma. The space between. The parts that don’t make it to the representation. Can/Is representation do/ doing justice to the experiences? The inside/ outside, the private, the public.
Gail talked of Agnes’ Jacket as an amulet – the betweenness (verbal and the visual). ‘Disorder self: use art to order the self’.
Lots of meaty phraseology too – transport of the affect and the relief of signification. A little bit of translation needed, but it was clear enough to stick with. Bobby said that the sensual delight of painting meant that as she ‘learnt myself, I learnt my story’.
Ideas of infantilizing the distressed came up and the marginalization. More talk of ‘the other’ – Bobby saying she didn’t recognize herself from the diary entries.
Griselda gave a quick guide of attitudes and thoughts towards the distressed from platonic ideas in Ancient Greece to the psychologizing of the 20th century.
I left for lunch with my daughter buzzing with interdisciplinary vibes and desires to find out more, to find answers, to ask more questions and continue to try and change attitudes. Polly

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