by Kate Holmes
Four photographs of a performance installation wait in an archival box, tied with red ribbon. Each photographic image represents decisions and concerns that led to their inclusion in this eclectic box of objects, the traces of events now passed. Who will next open it? How will each image perform within the viewer’s imagination? How will each print create an impression or re-performance of the various events that comprised the Unfurl project; a performance installation and an artistic residency?
Unfurl archival box
Subtitled “A work of two parts”, “Unfurl” by Clare Thornton, was a performance installation and an accompanying public exhibition. The project ran from August to November 2011 and explored the aesthetic and philosophical concept of The Fold that forms a central focus of Clare Thornton’s work. For her, The Fold holds within it the potential to conceal, transform or reveal. Her creative practice is an extension of this research that engages with and responds to the items investigated, such as the sculptural piece, ‘Unfurl for Sarah Bernhardt’. This fan was inspired by the soft and fragile folds of a Sarah Bernhardt cape and the crisp concertina folds of fans held in the University of Bristol Theatre Collection’s performance archives; fans that also hold the potential to conceal, reveal and direct the gaze.
‘Unfurl for Sarah Bernhardt’ by Clare Thornton
Image copyright: Clare Thornton.
“Unfurl” brought together a variety of organisations and individuals, including myself. My role in the project was both as Clare Thornton’s assistant and a student of the University of Bristol Drama Department, completing a Masters in Performance Research. The project was supported by the Arts Council of England, through a bid championed by Theatre Bristol’s Artist Support, Tanuja Amarasuriya. Unfurl partnered two of Bristol’s less visible yet significant heritage organisations: The Red Lodge Museum (part of Bristol City Council Museum and Art Galleries) and the University of Bristol Theatre Collection. These organisations collaborated together for the first time on Unfurl, whose public events took advantage of prominent dates in Bristol’s arts calendar. These included Bristol Doors Open Day and the University of Bristol’s first InsideArts Festival. These events provided audiences with an opportunity to engage with these institutions differently, through the artist’s creative interpretation of the spaces and the objects in the archive.
The Tudor Red Lodge Museum hosted the first public event. This was a durational, site-specific performance installation that transformed its historic Elizabethan interiors by unfurling nearly two kilometres of red ribbon into a transparent door. This door ghosted the bedchamber’s original and created a frame through which to view the performer. Dressed in a ruff, the performer, Rogelio Vallejo echoed postures from the Red Lodge’s portraiture and handled a number of objects sourced from the Theatre Collection’s archive. This performance, silent except for the sound of the falling ribbon, forced the audience to constantly shift their focus between the unfurling and folding red ribbon and the performer; a man who in revealing himself in poses, managed to obscure himself by remaining silent.
A week after the performance installation, as part of Bristol Doors Open Day, visitors viewed a framed photographic print of the performance in situ and were invited to view the accompanying exhibition across the road. The Unfurl Exhibition formed the major public component of Clare Thornton’s residency with the Theatre Collection. Throughout the next two months, events unfolded that invited audiences to engage with the exhibition and the Theatre Collection.
Unfurl and the archive
The particular part of the archive that Unfurl responded to was the Mander & Mitchenson Collection (M&M Collection) – a body of archival materials formed by a lifelong act of personal collection by actors and partners, Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson. At that time, the M&M Collection was the Theatre Collection’s latest acquisition and is one of the largest collections in the world covering British theatre and popular entertainment. Visiting the off site storage facility converted specifically to house over 1 million items that comprise the M&M Collection, we were greeted by nameless boxes of materials. So, with over 2,500 boxes before us and only five days available, we opened boxes at random on the basis of whim or instinct, and explored their contents in search of objects and materials that responded to the theme of The Fold.
An Artwork of Archiving
During our exploration in the archive, we decided to create an artwork of archiving – a box of objects that would speak for Unfurl. Our concern became how we could influence Unfurl’s reception in the future. If performance is disappearance, and these objects are its traces, then these fragments are left to speak for a future experience. One that gathers objects created during the process of completing Unfurl and provides a different impression about how, what and why it was presented as it was.
It was always intended that Unfurl would take its place within the Collection. But as the project unfurled, we both became preoccupied with leaving more than a photographic document. After all, Unfurl is more than just one static milli-second stolen from the three hour performance installation. Even as a representation of that one event, the photograph fails to demonstrate the audience’s viewpoint and agency. The duration and small viewing space, created a dynamic between audience members that demanded they move on to allow others access to the space and that the performance be viewed in different sections – giving each audience member the opportunity to choose how long they wanted to play with their spectatorship. This was further reinforced by the need to occasionally close the viewing room in order to photograph from the audience’s optimum viewing position. All of which make this framed photograph, a beautiful but insufficient trace left solely to speak of the Unfurl Performance Installation. But where is the Unfurl Exhibition and residency represented in this image? How could we communicate the significance of touch in our process of creating the Exhibition?
Each time I witnessed the exhibition, I imaginatively touched each object with the benefit of being able to remember what it felt like to feel each item in my hands. Others did not have access to this series of memories, but the exhibition’s most positive feedback related to the opportunities people had to be talked through the exhibition by Clare Thornton. During these interactions, not only did Clare Thornton provide the framework through which to view The Fold within the objects, she also verbally explored individual items. She drew attention to texture and occasionally described the sensation of touching. She also described imagining objects “rubbing up” against one another in order to invite new ways of experiencing the artefacts encased behind glass.
Inserted within the exhibition cabinets were new artworks created by Clare Thornton that gathered together the far off pasts that inspired them. This included “Unfurl for Sarah Bernhardt” fan created from a black and white photograph of a Sarah Bernhardt cape printed onto tracing paper. This transparent material gave the fan a fragility that echoed its source of inspiration – an item of costume too delicate to display. The new artwork folding the past of the delicate cape into the exhibition’s present, through the process that inspired and created it.
Even though Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson were avid collectors, they selected objects based on their interests, which in turn led to gaps and omissions. This process of selection and omission performed by Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson is echoed in the creation of the Unfurl Exhibition. On this occasion we selected and omitted objects to produce an exhibition that demonstrated our feminist identities. We chose to select women who controlled their careers and their representation in our exploration of the Fold. The most overt being the image of Sarah Bernhardt as Mistress Clarkson in L’Étrangère – the image that came to represent the exhibition on the Theatre Collection’s facebook page. This print spoke to us of female potency and agency. Its visual power so striking that it provoked an almost physical reaction when first viewed – forcing us both to take a breath, stop and select it as a significant object in the exhibition.
Sarah Bernhardt as Mistress Clarkson
University of Bristol Theatre Collection, Mander & Mitchenson Collection: Sarah Bernhardt as Mistress Clarkson in L'Étrangère (Dumas Fils), Comedie Francaise, 14 Feb 1876.
In creating our archival box, we are again enacting another process of selection and omission. So, let me return to the Unfurl archival box, unravel the ribbon, lift the lid and feel the weight of the first photograph. Let me unravel my impressions and respond to each print selected in turn.
I see a ghosted door ajar, red ribbon falling in a blurring movement that obscures my view, a figure in the distance, wood panelled rooms, portraiture.
All Unfurl performance installation images copyright: Clare Thornton & Zoe Childerley.
This photograph, that greets the viewer first, is the central image chosen to document the performance. It is a copy of the framed photographic print that sits separately within the artwork stacks of the Theatre Collection. This one captured moment expands outwards to display the concerns of the artist and to reference the key features of the live event. It best demonstrated the location and themes of the work.
A man wearing a ruff leans thoughtfully against wood panels, a ghostly door, red blurs across my vision, painted faces watching on.
This image was selected by the photographer, Zoe Childerley, as her favourite photograph from the final selection of images. For her, this is a “more considered portrait” and is less about providing a context to the performance. She enjoys “the way the door distorts his face” and is interested in the faces watching over the performer (Rogelio Vallejo). These depictions of faces in the background, suggest to her “a dialogue between the figures themselves and Rogelio, between the past and the present”. Although interesting, these were not concerns that Unfurl set out to explore.
A figure wearing a ruff distorts my gaze, is he toying with me by looking at me through this mirror? Is he really there? Red ribbon crisply falls.
Although composition is important to the performer, Rogelio Vallejo, he selected this image as a “memento mori … a palimpsest image to conjure up recollections of the performance itself”. The photograph shows “a living character… time passing (the ribbon filling the transparent door, the light coming through the window); eyes looking (those in the mirror, as well as those of characters in the painting behind) and space (represented by the panelled walls and furniture)”. All of these speak of the live event and remind Rogelio of his experience as the performer – one where “there was an actual audience present” with whom he developed a relationship. Although the audience is absent from this image, it highlights this absence in his mind. I am unsure if it highlights this relationship to me, without his words. But I do feel more engaged with the performer through being able to view his eyes in the bright circle of the mirror.
Vibrating red movement, red ribbon filling a ghostly door, red ribbon crushing up against transparency to give an impression of solidity, a man wearing a ruff, he powerfully controls my gaze through a mirror.
This final image was chosen by the University of Bristol Centre for Public Engagement, who provided marketing support for a number of the Residency’s events and who did not attend the live performance. Up until its selection for the cover art for the University of Bristol’s November What’s On programme, only three images were due to be included within the archival box. Three images selected because they expressed key elements of the live event or the artist’s wish to represent the viewpoints of key collaborators in the Unfurl Performance Installation. The reappearance of this fourth image by an independent party provoked a reassessment from Clare Thornton. Although it was not the correct image to be framed, because “it was too much of a close up in terms of the door and showing the wider Red Lodge context”, it does demonstrate the movement of the red ribbon, its progress up the door and the performer’s gaze. As such, it added another layer alongside the other photographic images within the archival box.
Viewing these images together, in my hands, I’m suddenly struck by a sensation not experienced when I saw them first on screen in the same order. The performer seems to be playing with me. At first he is hiding out of view, then dances forward, then back again, then forward. Each time he seems to be controlling my gaze, refusing to make eye contact until the final moment. Time has passed, and the red ribbon is filling the door. Yet at the final moment, when he comes closest to me, he refuses direct eye contact and makes me gaze into his eyes through the mirror and the door. The physical encounter with the photographic prints, provokes a different reception, a much more immediate and visceral response. The photograph moves beyond the digital image, to give me access to knowledge, only accessible through its presence as an object – through its presence in my hands.
The physical photographic print is also of benefit for the artist. When viewing through a computer screen, it is not possible to control the quality of the screen, the resolution or configuration. Viewing the same image on one person’s monitor will be a very different experience to viewing it on another – something the artist cannot control. However, the photograph – printed on paper – does represent an opportunity to fix the depth of colours in relation to each other. Although these colours will be affected by the paper’s slow degradation, selecting archival quality paper will slow this progress.
In recent years, there have been a number of projects devoted to digitising archives. Hand in hand with these have been discussions about digital obsolescence and the fragile nature of the digital file – an item always open to the spontaneous and fatal deterioration of bit rot. Our whole purpose in putting these images in this box is that they will remain for people to hold and experience through their hands in the future. They too can enjoy the insights gained from touching and feeling the archival objects that remain to speak of Unfurl.
Perhaps Clare Thornton and I are still too close to the project to make the final decisions on what is significant enough to be included in the Unfurl archival box. Yet we are certainly getting closer to finding the right time to close the lid, tie the ribbon, accession the archival box and let the dust settle on Unfurl.