Monday, 27 February 2012

The Spectator vs. The Expert

This is my first appearance on the 154 blog (except for the rather cool photo of me below – thank you Yvonne!) but I have been beavering away on the project for the past few weeks.  I’ve had a fair few meetings and chats with the other artists, discussed ideas with friends, spoken with a number of community groups and most importantly I’ve spent 3 good days in Barnsley, 1 in Newham and of course been on a rather long and winding road trip (thank you again Yvonne for driving – sorry to everybody for my navigation); getting a feel for the places, sketching out some ideas for stories and taking the odd photo for inspiration.  It’s going really well and I now find myself surrounded by all sorts of scraps of writing, ideas and photos, trying to find some sense of order or narrative to what’s strewn in front of me.
This is very unusual for me.  Normally I struggle to get started on a new project.
I suppose like many people I usually find the beginning the hardest part; the ‘in’ if you will on any given project, and I tend to find myself circling the edges over and over; like the dad who finds himself staring over the edge of a 10 metre diving board wondering what the hell he’s doing up there, desperately trying to work up the courage to jump rather than disappoint his doting daughter.  It usually takes me a long time to jump.

Just not on this occasion. 

This is an unnerving experience for me; where I would normally be hesitantly crawling to the edge of the diving board I now seem to be running at full tilt ready to dive bomb the water below and, dare I say it, enjoying myself.  I’m not sure I like it.

I like the familiar feel of over analysing things; of finding faults in my ideas; over complicating processes; and generally paralysing my hand as I force it to pick up a pen and write some words on some paper. Any words... In short, I like to worry.  The rewards when the words finally start to flow are all the sweeter after such a self imposed torture.

On this occasion, though of course I’m a long way from any finished piece, I just seem to be enjoying the process.  So I decided to find something to worry about. Anything. 

Imagine my relief when I met with Emma Adams for breakfast one day and she gave me that something: a question.  Just a small thing, but I’ve clung to it dearly and built it up in my head, and generally turned it into a big dilemma; I feel satisfied now.

In truth (and reality), it’s actually a very interesting question and one I would welcome other people’s opinions on hence this post.

“Can you write about a place or person without an expert understanding of your subject?"

I had met with Emma to chat about ideas for the project and her potential involvement.  Can I just randomly say at this point that when we arrived at the cafe the waitress asked if we’d like to see the breakfast menu and naturally, being there for breakfast, we both said yes.  After a few minutes the waitress returned with the menu for us to peruse.  It was an A5 piece of card with black type across the centre that simply said “Scrambled Eggs on Toast”.  For once, I had no problem making a decision. I had the scrambled eggs on toast without the scrambled eggs; Emma, to my surprise, ordered everything on the menu.

Anyway, during our chat Emma raised a concern she had relating to the time she could give to the project and in the process posed the above question to me saying that she felt if she could not fully immerse herself in the project (get to fully understand the two places meet lots of people etc.) she didn’t feel she could do the project justice. She needed to become an expert and was not sure if she had the time to do it.

What followed was a really interesting debate on the merits of the Expert vs. The Spectator and certainly (as we did) you can make a convincing argument for both sides of the question.  Certainly, in specific circumstances, the role of the Spectator is vitally important; observing and reacting to what happens around them, interpreting events and conjuring stories from the impressions that are made on them.  Equally though, there is a place for the Expert, interpreting what they see with a knowledge and context of the place around them. Conveying hidden depths to people and revealing unknown places or characteristics through the stories both real and imagined they choose to write.

The question we were mulling over was which of these approaches best suited this project.

Neither of us are from Barnsley or Newham and both acknowledged that, if we needed to become an expert in these communities in order to portray them, this would mean committing a lot of time to research and many days spent in the respective places; meeting people, digging around and discovering the hidden angels and demons; something we both relish doing.  On the other hand, this is a project about two communities 154 miles apart with little apparent knowledge of each other and approaching the project from this stand point would allow for a more reactionary response that the spectator might bring, still spending plenty of time in each place but with less researched knowledge behind us.

As a comparison to this we discussed our opinions of our own home towns.  I am a Bristol lad and one of the main traits of a Bristolian is to be fiercely Bristolian.  This has both its pluses and its minuses. On the one hand I pride myself on my knowledge of the city and am a constant champion of it as a place and the people that live there (friendliest place in Europe don’t you know!). I am also very honest about its shortcomings... to a degree.  However, I must begrudgingly confess to perhaps having a somewhat blinkered or (dare I say it?) bias towards the place.  This therefore, if I were ever to work on a piece about the city, would require the role of a spectator to even the balance. 

Well, if only it were that simple... I should also mention that I haven't lived in Bristol for almost 12 years (like I said - fiercely Bristolian) and yet I still consider myself an expert; I still visit regularly! Perhaps the notion of Expert itself needs to be further explored?

Anyway, ignoring my questionable expertise of Bristol, with the 154 collective we have found ourselves in the reverse roles; the spectators without an expert.  This ultimately was Emma’s worry and led to her concerns over the time she had to become an ‘expert’.

At the start of our scrambled eggs (without the eggs) this had not really been an issue I had considered but by the time we had paid the bill I did share Emma’s concerns.  This was not only an issue of choosing a perspective from which to work but also in ensuring an integrity and validity to the final exhibition as well.

I left the cafe with a spring in my step and a glint in my eye; at last I have something to worry about and to stew over and over.  My cocky confidence had gone, long live the sweating dad on the high board crawling to the edge with a fixed smile for his audience of one.

In recent weeks I have, sadly, found a myself in a more happy place with this issue; though to tell you my position would perhaps influence your own opinion, not to mention making a long blog longer.

So for now I would be content with your opinions on the question I’ve posed above: "Can you write about a place or person without an expert understanding of your subject?"  I would be genuinely interested in your opinions on this; not least as it might just fuel the fire and reignite my anxieties.

1 comment:

  1. I've been told that it is quite hard to comment here!
    If you would like to respond to the post please tweet or direct message @154collective.
    Thank you to those who already have (through twitter and facebook) - much appreciated and very interesting