May 2015: Elizabeth Bennett, performance and landscape researcher

Inspiration

‘When Shirley Collins talks about folksong, it isn’t a conversation of historical information, musicological data sets, Roud or Child numbers. It is of the corner of a Sussex field … it is a mother strolling through that field’s corner and becoming, for a moment, every young woman who’d ever strolled past it. To Shirley Collins … each age-old song is that corner field – a magical locus in which the singer is no longer merely themselves, but becomes every man and woman who has ever sung that song’ (Justin Hopper, 2014)

The Singer

I sing regularly in a Sussex-based folk choir and I have heard folk songs sung all my life by my mother who has performed in folk clubs around Sussex for the past 40 years. Following in Shirley Collins footsteps, literally and figuratively, I intend to sing the folk songs of Sussex in sites of resonance. I will aim to publish one recording a day, with an introduction to the site, the history of the song, and then an unaccompanied performance in situ. As a researcher, I am particularly interested in notions of landscape that are haptic and auditive rather than visual, therefore I intend for the recording to be purely audio and to discuss how imagination might add to the process of landscaping for the audience.

The Songs

A multitude of folk songs are set in the month of May, and it is within this month that I will be posting my research. I hope that I will be able to explore why May has proven such a muse for singers of the British Isles, by discussions around the social and agricultural practices of this time of year and the processes of nature that have inspired them. Although in contemporary times we have been able to record folk songs, both in the written and the audio form, for this project I would like to interview Sussex folk singers and learn songs orally from them. This method both continues original traditions of practice and reflects how I have absorbed folk songs throughout my life.

IMG_1634

Brighton Vox Choir – Firle, Sussex

The Setting

At the outset of the projects I had wanted to learn songs throughout the British Isles and sing them in sites of well-known archaeological merit. My decision to narrow the perspective is two-fold; my postdoctoral research argues that landscaping is a process and Sussex, being my home county, has been the site of my formative landscapes [or lifeworld as Pearson and Shanks term it: ‘the totality of a person’s direct involvement with the places and environments in everyday life’ (Pearson, Shanks 2005: p. 153)]; furthermore I believe that this will contribute to notions of the everyday and vernacular archaeologies explored throughout Public Archaeology 2015. Therefore, whilst I may record a song on the lofty heights of Chanctonbury Ring, I may also record a song walking through Lancing Recreational Ground on my way to the Co-op.

Questions?

  1. Public engagement as it stands would be with those who are engaged in the project through twitter and the blog, and the singers that I approach to teach me the songs of Sussex. How might I engage the non-blogging public? Do I perhaps perform all 30 songs at the end of May at a local folk club? Or do I sing the songs live at the sites with people around and therefore have both a non-web and non-folk audience?
  2. If archaeology is a subject concerned with artefacts, how might we begin to perceive the artefacts of folk performance practices? Am I the artefact? Or are their traces of songs imprinted on the land? Is this interpretative archaeology?
  3. Is landscape the preserve of the seeing subject? How might folk song contribute to a multi-layered conception of landscape – or a deep map?
  4. Beyond Mike Pearson and Mike Shanks’ collaboration Theatre/Archaeology (2005), are there texts or projects of interest that may help me to formulate my ideas around the relationship between performance and archaeology?

https://soundcloud.com/elizabeth-bennett-4

Hooper, J (2014). By The Mark On His Hand. Available at: http://www.justin-hopper.com/by-the-mark-on-his-hand/ [Accessed on 11/08/2014]. Electronic.

Pearson, M. Shanks, M (2005). Theatre/Archaeology. London: Routledge. Print.

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January 2015: Rob Irving, artist…

The idea for my project emerged out of conversations with archaeologists from the Research Laboratory for Archaeology & the History of Art, part of Oxford University’s School of Archaeology, during a magnetic susceptibility survey of a Neolithic site in Dorset over three weeks in winter 2013.

The reference to art history intrigued me, so I asked about it. I expect it referred to mainly ‘(pre)classical antiquities’, which made me think of the interpretations of earlier antiquarians such as Aubrey and Stukeley, and the stories that ancient bumps and ruins in the landscape told to them.

Of course, any true history of art would also have to consider our responses to the auric power of relics, even fake ones, and the human impulse to use physical objects to express the intangible, as well as the work and cultural impact of Marcel Duchamp and Dada. Mine would certainly include the conceptual artist Vik Muniz’ Clown Skull (1987) as a parody of archaeological finds like the 3,000 year-old elongated skulls from Paracas, Peru, which recently revived the ‘ancient astronaut’ theory of extraterrestrial intervention.

Vik Muniz, Clown Skull (1987)

Vik Muniz, Clown Skull (1987)

Muniz says of this kind of cultural object that “the real ones make the fake ones look real, and the fake ones make the real ones look fake.” (Lecture, Magdalen College Oxford 09/05/2014). Indeed, a fuller history of art-as-relic would open a Pandora’s Box of moral and cultural transgression.

This kind of talk does not go down very well in disciplinary environments where empirical methods have primacy over other forms of knowledge acquisition, where fakery is dis/regarded as anathema. Whether archaeology is also empiricist is a very different issue; the point I tried to express is that social science and the arts must, of necessity, go further: embrace the mess, and assume different significances beyond the reductive.

Mythoarchaeology

When we talk about creative relationships and collaboration between art and science it is important to remember that art is not merely decoration. It is an artist’s prerogative to challenge what we know. Art is not science, nor subject to scientific reason; it plays by different rules… which is what I intend to do here.

Survey hectare marker, 2013

Survey hectare marker, 2013

My research specialty concerns the processes by which modern myth is converted into legend (i.e., presented as fact, as occurring at a particular time and place), and the polemics that ensue… As they surely must when post-rationalist or ‘New Age’ ritual practices reference, and at the same time usurp, modern science. Much of the pseudoscientific practice woven into New Age belief is legend-telling by action, or to folklorists, ostension.

The New Age fascination with ‘alternative archaeology’ is first and foremost an escape from modernity. The New Age movement may be defined by its alienation from, and rejection of, dominant social ideologies (e.g., science, construed and caricatured as scientism) in favour of new ways of conceiving the world. These in turn are, paradoxically, rooted in an ancient, mythic past. It is in this sense archaeology of the future, an excavation intended to disclose and re/construct imagined futures from a ‘lost’ utopian science fiction.

Rather than dismissing this activity as superficial and irrelevant, as my esteemed interlocutors did during those chats over tea and chipolatas, I am interested in the innate confusion between experiment in search of law and interpretation in search of meaning; how ostension, through performativity and artistic interference mediates different realities, and how this affects human relationships with place.

A popular European example of this is the modern myth of ‘earth energies’, which relies on observable phenomena (the movement of dowsing instruments) to detect and validate the existence of these energies. I propose to progress this idea using archaeological surveying data to disclose and map trace evidence of subterranean patterns, implying the existence of vast shadowy sculptures that work more powerfully as art, I would argue, because they are invisible. An extension of mythogeography, this is mythoarchaeology… with data.

I hope to engage the public to the extent to which my project contributes to the continuity of popular myth, and if I find any examples of this I shall bag them and present them here along with documentation of the process, data logs and maps.

Methodology

‘Ley’ line grid experiment, 2014

‘Ley’ line grid experiment, 2014

Appropriate to any occupation of a middle ground between the empirical and interpretive, I model my methodology on the mythic figure of the Trickster. The prevailing idea of the Trickster figure is of a sometimes divine, sometimes animal being, which plays tricks and breaks rules. A reappraisal of its role suggests a subtler identity than this with regard to art, where it plays a part in an interactive process. The Trickster has no particular pretension towards science, nor ‘art’ in the conventional sense. As a folk figure, it personifies latent alternatives to normative structures. As a mode of human behaviour, using antistructural ploys to subvert habitual thinking, it thrives on transgression and subversion, creating ambiguity and anomaly, in this case to articulate relations between make-believe (mythos) and ‘rational’ logos, in an effort (which often fails) to open new ontological vistas.

Drawing on Jane Ruffino’s engaging talk about anthropological approaches to data analysis, and especially with reference to how story is projected in the form of desire onto what we find (data causes problems at the storytelling stage, therefore one solution is to manipulate the data), I propose to:

  • Treat the survey data from an artist’s, not a scientist’s perspective.
  • Play with it (one universal characteristic of the Trickster is that it likes to play in and with its own dirt products).
  • In the spirit of Stukeley, make the data fit the most desirable outcome.

Naturally my project will involve some sleight of hand…