A coincidence of Agnes(es)

In 2012 my sister Antonia Riviere and I were visiting fellows at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. We were there researching Australian clothes rationing during World War 2. We were interested in how film had been used to support the government’s austerity drive, whether Australians been encouraged to ‘make do and mend’ like their British counterparts, and how could we use our own making to explore these and other questions.

The day before we arrived Marina took in a stray cat she’d found roaming around outside – grey, long haired, very under weight and with no known name. For some reason during the night that followed I was thinking about Agnes Smedley (born in the 1890s) whose book Daughter of Earth I read when I was a teenager. Agnes Smedley had a very tough life chronicled in the semi-autobiographical Daughter of Earth and then during World War 1 worked for Indian independence and later in China as a journalist, writing amongst other things about the Chinese revolution.

In the morning I heard Ant and Marina talking about another Agnes, Agnes Richter, a german seamtress held in an asylum during the 1890s. I knew about Richter because Aice Kettle and Jane McKeating at MMU feature her embroidered straitjacket in their new book Handstitch Perspectives.

A third Agnes came to light half an hour later. Marina remembered seeing an exhibition at the Cunnigham Dax Collection called Stitched-Up. In it was a jacket not dissimilar to the one made by Agnes Richter. When Marina found the catalogue it turned out the woman who embroidered the jacket was called Edith Agnes Harrington. Belinda Robson the curator of the show writes that the patient liked to be called Dr Harrington and refused to wear government-issued clothes provided for patients.

“Her ex-husband would send her money and she used this money to select her own material and have the clothes made up by the tailoress at Mayday Hills. ..[her] work on the clothes created part of herself that she could control and treat with care, in refusal of the hospital regimes. The clothes on display allowed her to reconnect with the world through the details of their material, stitching and preservation.”

Richard had thought about calling the cat Rosa after Rosa Luxemburg, but he and Marina both liked the sound of Agnes. Now the cat is learning her new name, hopefully without being burdened by all the associations that come with it.

Past and future threads

In 2012 my sister Antonia Riviere and I were visiting fellows at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. We were there researching Australian clothes rationing during World War 2. We were interested in how film had been used to support the government’s austerity drive, whether Australians been encouraged to ‘make do and mend’ like their British counterparts, and how could we use our own making to explore these and other questions.  

I am in Melbourne with my sister Ant. We are on our way to Canberra where we’ll be spending two months at the National Film and Sound Archive. Right now we’re spending the weekend with our brother Richard and sister-in-law Marina.

Last night we swopped cloth and textiles stories with Marina. Like Ant, she is an artist who re-purposes textiles. This morning she got out a box of beautiful embroidery threads that an elderly friend gave her, wanting it to go to a good home. The friend aquired it in the 1960s but the paper spools on which the silks are wound look like they date from around the 1940s.

I was asking Marina this morning about her clothes when she was a child in Croatia. She told me that her great aunt was a seamtress and pattern cutter during the socialist period and made clothes using patterns she adapted from western magazines sent by relatives. She would ask the kids what shape garment they wanted – puff sleeves, or belted waists for instance – and the kids would be involved in the design of their dresses.

Both Ant and Marina incorporate family associations into their work. Listening to them talk about the memories attached to their materials made me think about the connections between improvisation and loss. While improvisation is about moving into the future it also incorporates the past – past traditions, materials, people and skills. The experience and trauma of loss can induce repetitive circling round painful experience, but I think a diagram of improvisation would have a spiralling rather than a circling movement – able to gather up past experience – and by implication loss – but wary of getting trapped in repeating loops of loss and open to change and forward-facing movement.



I’ve just returned from India. I was there last in 2010 with Steve Dixon and Cj O’Neill working on The Pol Project and making the film Entry. This time I travelled first to Delhi for the ASA (Association of Social Anthropologists) 2012 conference where I was co-convening a panel on improvisation with Anne Douglas and Kathleen Coessens, and then Anne and I went on to Ahmedabad in Gujarat for a few days.

JNU campus - photo Anne Douglas

Anne Douglas is Head of Research at Gray’s School of Art so we did talk shop rather a lot. But Johnny persuaded us to take a day off to visit the Sun Temple at Modhera.

Anne and Johnny at the Sun Temple

Johnny runs a brilliant guide and driving operation – if you are ever in Ahmedabad and want picking up from the airport or guiding/driving round the wonderful sites, textiles workshops etc. then he is your man – his company is called Ahmedabad Travel.

I enjoyed being in the city again, and this time made it to the Sunday market where Anne took lots of photographs, something I fail to do both in India and at home, unless I’m ‘working’ – which anyway means writing, drawing or videoing, but rarely photographing.

I met up with my good friend Palak Chitaliya, full of energy and joy as ever.

Palak kindly translated for me during an interview with the family who helped me so much in 2010 with the film Entry.

Talking to Mayur - photo by Anne Douglas

I asked Mayur, his nephew Naitik and Naitik’s mother (in this photo), whether anything had changed as a result of making Entry.

Naitik said that there had been more unity afterwards. Apparently, women have started meeting together far more regularly and in bigger groups to discuss community events. There has also been a two day picnic, and problems are being shared more openly than before. I expressed some surprise that such changes could come about through making something quite small. Naitik and Mayur said that the potential for change was already there, but the film was the catalyst. From my point of view the video was a form of improvisation, so this was interesting feedback. It made me think about unintended consequences in an age obsessed with foreseeing, measuring and controlling impact.

It was a very quick trip and as before I would love to return. Naitik’s mother said that the ladies group are going to discuss things they might like me to film, so I am waiting to hear what suggestions they have in store for me!

All photos courtesy of Anne Douglas

Talk at Fabrica Gallery

A Kind of Making – a talk at Fabrica Gallery, November 2011

I was invited by the artist Naomi Kendrick to give a talk at Fabrica Gallery in Brighton. She’s been developing a series of sessions on professional practice with Liz  Whitehead who is a co-director of the gallery. The programme explores various approaches to working with diverse audiences using the contemporary visual arts (see more at A Multisensory Approach).

I began by showing a twenty minute film I’d made in 1996 about the artist Peter Goode.

Peter Goode's carving   

Still from Peter’s Stone God

It was the first film of my MA in Visual Anthropology at the University of Manchester. In some ways its a strange choice for a public talk as it is poor quality, having been made on a VHS analogue editing system and before I had any filmmaking skills to speak of. But it deals with the issues still central in my work – in particular making as this relates to physical materials, relationships between people and the environment, and the craft of video and film.

I followed this with something about my doctoral research (in anthropology with visual media). My fieldwork was in Todmorden, where I was living and involved 3 sites – a factory, a farm and a housing estate.

The film The Bracewells, was shot in 1998 and edited in 2000-1.

Still from The Bracewells

Through this film and the fieldwork I did immediately before it on a housing estate, I found out that from my point of view observational cinema works for some things but not all. It was well suited to the research I was doing with farmers but less so to other situations. For example, what I was doing as an observational filmmaker was not dissimilar from what the Bracewell’s were doing themselves – movement, rhythm, touch, smell, looking and listening were central to their daily work.

But just before this, I’d been on housing estate and had a completely different experience trying to use the observational approach. The  camera was viewed  overwhelmingly as a mode of surveillance.

Here is an extract from my fieldnotes:

Art and craft. T and D watched football video while I played with Ts daughter R outside. Later art and craft parents and toddlers. Everyone tense and R and K fighting. S is not here today and I didn’t have the camera pointed at them or on at this point, but felt tension between censoring reality and not wanting to record things that expose or objectify T and C. or things that will make them vulnerable to outside criticism – they’ve had their children taken away and T is working towards getting R back fulltime. First of a number of difficult issues that came up about video today .

A lot of different kinds of filming happened during this time including the girls filming one another. Much of the time I was driving with them to different places – the shops, court, social services, relatives – and as I was driving they had the camera. But I didn’t use any of the material we had taken because I found it too objectifying. Instead I wrote about the estate, changing names and trying to capture the atmosphere.

Extract from thesis

We all leave Cheryl’s and set off down the snicket. It’s a sultry day. Just now, lying in Cheryl’s doorway, Cath remarked on the white clouds delicately suspended in the sky and for a few moments there was a stillness and calm amongst us. Now, as I follow Tina and Cath, Deanna, Vron, Mat and Anne along the path the muscles in my stomach tighten again.

Tina is drunk and noisy. She swaggers along, laying claim to the Avvie even though she has been banned from here by the conditions of her bail. I struggle momentarily with the desire to take the downhill road that leads to my house, but instead I follow the others into Tina’s dad’s house. Sitting in the small front room Mat draws attention to his sister Rachel who appears on the road above us. She is a thin, wiry nine year old wearing a short skirt, tottering on black patent shoes with 2 inch heels. She comes down the path, into the living room and springs catlike on to Deanna’s knee. Tina is eating an egg sandwich she has just made in the kitchen and tells Rachel to leave the room as she isn’t invited. Rachel taunts Tina back and soon they are chasing each other round the cramped room. For a moment or two the fight is a perfectly choreographed performance but Tina is easily riled and tells Rachel angrily to ‘f’ off.

Rachel flies at her, arms and legs flailing, her nine year old body making little impact. Cheryl sits a little uneasily smiling, her eyes worried, betraying the unspoken feeling that Tina bullies all of us and that it is only this child who stands up to her. Tina opens the back door and pushes the child out, locking it behind her and laughing loudly.

‘She’ll come round the front now’ says Vron. ‘What’s she like, little bitch!’ her voice thick with maternal pride.

The front door rattles as Rachel tries to force her way through, then reappearing again at the back she is both laughing and crying and Tina swings open the window, barely missing her head and throws the egg sandwich in her face. The child moves like lightening, darting up the path, temporarily out of range. By now we are all on our feet. Tina fetches a raw egg from the kitchen and goes into the back garden with it hidden behind her back ‘Rachel, come here darling, come here babes’. We laugh: the small girl holding her own, determined not to give up. As Rachel’s frustration and humiliation reach a frenzy she begins to sob and then, between admonishments that she is soft to cry and she’ll get a good belting if she does, Vron and Tina cuddle and comfort her. As we leave the house and head towards the town centre, Rachel asks Tina if she can stay at her house tonight and Tina lifts her up and tells her she can.

Through these two different ways of working I understood that the filmmaking I’m most comfortable with has potential in it for what you could call continuous practice – things unfold through the making, and you follow ideas through that process, not knowing exactly what the outcome will be.  Explicit or verbally articulated thought and understanding sometimes occur a long time afterwards. Another way to put it would be thinking through making rather than a practice where you think as a way of making, where you plot the course something will take before doing it through e.g. theory or drawn plans or a shooting script.

But I also saw that this wasn’t always the most appropriate method.

I think its important to reflect on the kind of approaches you are comfortable with and whether you might want to challenge those. What other methods there might be? Why you are attached to some over others? How you might extend yourself?

Making The Bracewells helped me see that my preferred filmmaking at the time was about achieving a shared presence in an environment; and the making involved in editing was about maintaining a semblance of this in the finished film – though when I say shared presence I mean in a way that doesn’t eliminate difference, but makes it possible to relate across difference.

Reverie, play and making

Moving closer to present I showed a film made in 2009-10 called Beautiful Colour.

This took me back to making – but in Beautiful Colour I was more consciously interested in the relationship between making, play and reverie.

Thinking about what we are comfortable with and the need to try other things sometimes, what I did differently in this film was to place limitations on what and how I filmed – to only film in Ian Partridge’s part of studio, not to try and explain what happened outside that space – to leave that to the viewer’s imagination. I wanted to focus on the spaces where Ian has autonomy.

In terms of ethical considerations and access, I made this film with my sister Ant Riviere. She produced the film and was working with Ian at the time. Permission for the filming was given on Ian’s behalf by his advocates who felt that it would beneficial to him as an artist.  There were a few tricky issues about other clients at the artbarn. We had to be careful not to get them in frame as we had no permissions for them to appear. The method was about staying close, thinking about continuity in editing, not trying to interview Ian but trying to enter into the making and reverie and play with him.

I learnt a great deal about play from making this film –  open play rather than purposeful play.  It encouraged me to begin drawing again after twenty years. People who see the film often say that seeing Ian work makes them want to paint.

Ian was not very interested in the finished film – he saw it when it was done and also attended a screening of it at the BigScreen in Norwich.  But things came of it that he enjoyed – for example I showed the film to the curator of a big exhibition of outsider art from the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester who realized after viewing it that there was work by Ian in the (huge) collection. As a result she decided to show Ian’s work along with the film at the exhibition.

Videoing Ian led to the last film I showed at the Fabrica talk which was made in India and is called Entry. Ian’s playfulness as an artist helped me see possibilities of playing more proactively myself as a filmmaker.

Entry was made during a month-long residency at Arts Reverie, an artist’s house in Ahmedabad that brings Indian makers and international artists together in various exchange programmes.

The project team consisted of three UK researchers -artist Cj O’Neill, myself and the artist Stephen Dixon (principal investigator); and two Indian researchers  – the artist Lokesh Ghai, who took the role of project manager (and who was also collaborating with Steve on a separate project for the AIAF), and Palak Chitaliya who had consulted with local people about environmental conditions on previous occasions and had good relationships with people living in Dhal ni Pol. Our attempts to get to know people were helped by the timing of our visit which coincided with Navratri (8), a festival of nine nights, which is celebrated in part through dancing each night, something we enjoyed joining in with.

The film came about through Cj wanting to find visual stories with which to decorate chai ceramics and me wanting to find a way to further my work on reverie and play. Through various discussions we arrived at an idea for an event which would take place over one day – a doorway would be set up in a public space and people would be invited to interact with it while I recorded material from a fixed point and Cj took photographic portraits.

We set up the doorway outside his house, in the street, on the auspicious day of Dussehra (the festival that ends Navratri).

On my last night when having screened the film, someone who had taken a large part in the filming was upset that I had not given him a dvd with everything I had filmed on it, rather than just giving him the edited film. I hadn’t been able to fit all the material onto a dvd in time (which has since been supplied), and this revealed how we were, or seemed to be, appropriating something. Ownership is actively questioned in ‘socially-engaged’ art – perhaps more so than in some other research contexts where it is also an issue. Cj and I have written about this in relation to the residency in a forthcoming book called Collaboration Through Craft (Berg 2013), so I won’t say much here. But as well as thinking about authorship, I like most filmmakers have to consider how not to misinform audiences in ways that are damaging to the people and situations the films represent.

I ended the Fabrica talk by revisiting the question of making – the 3 kinds mentioned at the start –  material making, film making – especially regarding relationships; and reverie and play as states associated with making. What joins them together for me is the possibility of connection and even some kind of dissolution between self and other, self and world.

So as a kind of making, for me film/video is about fluidity and movement and hopefully about looking at the world.  Filmmaker David MacDougall puts it like this

Simply to look, and look carefully, is a way of knowing that is different from thinking. This not necessarily a matter of greater concentration, for often the more we concentrate, the more we only see ourselves. Concentration is not the same as being attentive and free of distractions…paying attention is not a matter of projecting oneself onto things-in-themselves but of freeing one’s consciousness to perceive them.

(from The Corporeal Image. (2006: 7).