Where Process meets Concept

Something my MA has taught me is that I need to understand my journey and unpick and decipher how I work. In other words, what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, who I’m doing it for (in terms of the audience), what are my reasons for doing it and what I’m trying to say and translate through doing it!

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Mind-map showing my MA journey

Before my MA, I tended to produce work and didn’t think too much about why I was making it. Someone once described my method of working as being like a ‘whirlwind’. Although I’d prefer to see my ‘creative process’ happening in ‘bursts’, in looking at the meaning of whirlwind perhaps there’s more truth to it than I originally thought.

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Further definitions include: A passionate, confused rush……An impetuously active person.

When you’re working within a project, it’s easy to become completely engrossed in all the exploration and experimentation but there comes a point when you realise you need to start bringing things together.

In analysing my working methods, it occurred to me that I’ve been working systematically, learning about this new Kombucha fabric; it’s characteristics, aesthetic qualities, limitations, unpredictability and physical properties. But now, there is a need to make the fabric translate and capture what it is, I want to translate and capture. I need to make my experiments work for me.

In working more intuitively with the fabric and deciding what inherent qualities I admire, I need to bring process and concept together. This means stopping physically making and reflecting, evaluating and analysing. Some would describe this as the ‘hard’ thinking stage. This is where displacement activity can take over…walking the dog, cleaning the house, replying to emails, doing research…

Displacement Activity: is an unnecessary activity that you do because you are trying to delay a more difficult or unpleasant activity

http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/displacement-activity

It was time to revisit my original intentions.

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You might recall, my connection with the sea is deep rooted with a family history of deep-sea fishermen, Merchant seamen and living by the coast for most all my life. I am drawn to the sea by its history, its mystery and its dynamics. There seems to be a primeval attraction and for me it is a place to escape; a place to walk or sit, to observe, think, reflect and be at one with the natural world.

I am particularly drawn to the ceaseless motion and the impact of the sea on the coastal landscape and how the landscape is ever changing and temporary in a way that can sometimes be difficult to predict. I am intrigued by how the sea manages to transform, displace, erode, conceal, reveal and migrate things through the ebb and flow of the tide and currents. It has the power to make and remake the landscape.

In Dr Mark Haywood’s Foreword to Sequences: the Call of the Running Tide (Polley & Woodman 2007) he captures this perfectly…

I never tire of the obvious yet fascinating prospect that in a few hours time (this) will become a wholly different world…a few hours later still and it will have re-emerged…the temporary land we share with the sea is a form of wilderness that we can only occupy temporarily: we can neither possess or control this zone of…unpredictable change.

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Geology has left us many clues to how the landscape has changed over time. I am conscious as I sit and soak up the coastal landscape that the bigger picture of geological time dwarfs me into insignificance and will continue to evolve beyond my life span.

In bringing process and concept together, it has been a particularly busy period for me. On the MA Course, there has been a period of Testing Time where we exhibit our work in progress to take part in group and individual critiques with senior staff and specialists from Manchester School of Art. Amongst these were textile artists Alice Kettle and Jane McKeating.

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I decided to ‘test’ out both large and small scale pieces and a variety of ideas to ‘test’ the response from the audience.

 

It was a valuable experience in a number of ways:

  • to see the work displayed in a gallery situation
  • to receive feedback on the work from a variety of practitioners
  • to gain clarity in articulating my ideas

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It was very interesting to receive different perspectives and interpretations of my work. People read my practice differently and saw different qualities within it.

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20160722_172038 copyFrom this Testing Time exhibition I was delighted to be invited to exhibit my Kombucha fabric work at No 70 Oxford Road (the old Cornerhouse Gallery) in Manchester to coincide with the Science in the City event (22-29th July) and in particular alongside the Microbiology and Art event Monday 25th at No 70. It was particularly interesting and valuable to see how the work appeared in a very different environment with different lighting, which made subtle transformations to the work.

 

 

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There now remains about 6 weeks to develop one or two of my ideas further, ready for the final MA show at the end of September. I hope you’ll stay with me during this final stage of development.

Best wishes, Christine

Does Size Matter?

 

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Production still © Jessica Warboys I recently visited Edinburgh to see the British Art Show 8. I was captivated by the large-scale by Jessica Warboys, which were made directly on the beach with the sea as her collaborator. She distributed pigment onto sea soaked canvases allowing the waves and the wind to determine the impression left by the paint. Although I’ve been exploring similar ideas, I was drawn to the scale of her paintings. It was partly this that encouraged me to increase the scale of my Kombucha fabric growing.

I recently visited Edinburgh to see the British Art Show 8. I was captivated by the large-scale Sea Paintings by Jessica Warboys, which were made directly on the beach with the sea as her collaborator. She distributed pigment onto sea soaked canvases allowing the waves and the wind to determine the impression left by the paint. Although I’ve been exploring similar ideas, I was drawn to the scale of her paintings. It was partly this that encouraged me to increase the scale of my Kombucha fabric growing.

Wanting to push the limitations of the Kombucha fabric and gain further knowledge and understanding, I set out to investigate whether increasing the scale would have any impact on the physical properties and aesthetic qualities of it.

To scale up my standard recipe and increase the quantities, I got in touch with a number of suppliers to see if they would consider donating any materials by way of sponsoring the research project. I was surprised yet appreciative that some suppliers saw potential in the project and agreed to donate. I learned that many suppliers only support charities, so I was humbled by the generosity of them.

  • Aspall’s donated 84 litres of their organic cyder vinegar.
  • Travis Perkins donated large plastic baths + large sheets of plywood to dry out the harvested fabric.
  • Empress Mills & Whaleys Bradford donated the muslin to cover the baths.
  • Happy Kombucha donated scobies.
  • Premier Foods donated 20 kilos Saxo salt.

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I wanted to find out whether increasing the scale impacted on the time the fabric needed to grow. I questioned whether the impact of scaling everything up would change the physical properties of the fabric but also whether the aesthetics would alter in any way. Would the fabric maintain its fragility and translucent qualities that interest me?

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20160515_171023 copyIt wasn’t long before many issues and challenges presented themselves that hadn’t surfaced on a smaller scale. I soon realised that increasing the number of Kombucha scobies was not a good move. The liquid became over active, resulting in many fermentation bubbles and subsequent large air pockets in the fabric. Where there is an air pocket, the fabric pauses in its growth, creating inconsistencies in the thickness of the fabric.

In addition, the scobies would stick themselves to the underside of the growing fabric. On a small scale if this ever happened, it didn’t seem an issue but on a larger scale it was particularly noticeable and again created inconsistencies and holes.

Although I wasn’t too upset by this, as I was working with a living, ever-changing, unpredictable material, I did want to strive for consistency and perfect the thickness before considering whether I wanted any variation to this.

Research led me to try and weigh down the scobies in order to gain consistency but my research didn’t offer any solutions as to what to use that would not contaminate the liquid.

I tried wrapping pebbles in cling film and placing them carefully on top of the scobies. The over active liquid soon unwrapped the cling film leaving the pebbles on their own. Unfortunately one of the pebbles probably contained hematite and subsequently disintegrated, contaminating the whole bath of liquid. Presumably the acid of the vinegar reacted with the iron content. I’m now using solid glass pieces to weigh down the scobies, courtesy of the science department!

Controlling and maintaining an ambient temperature proved to be a challenge when storing the live large baths. I suspect any inconsistency in temperature would also contribute to the overactivity of the scobies. I would often lie awake at night having visions of the overactive Kombucha liquid bubbling away violently in the studio, with a life of its own and pouring over the sides of the baths and covering the studio floor!

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Managing the larger sheets of wet harvested fabric was a learning episode in itself. If it was too thin, it was too fragile to handle; too thick and it became too heavy and slippery.

I am learning a lot about growing the Kombucha fabric large scale but not yet producing the results I had anticipated. The scale issue is far from resolved but my tenacious personality helps to persevere with it for the time being.

DSCN3913 copyIn the meantime, alongside this large scale exploration, I am continuing to explore the Kombucha on a smaller scale through stitch, manipulation of the surface and using the fabric as a substrate for image and text transfer, including trying cyanotype printing on it. I have also been exploring whether it will grow over and around objects.

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8Whilst I was in Edinburgh I visited a remarkable and thought provoking exhibition Bio and Beyond, part of Edinburgh’s International Science Festival. One section of this exhibition was Menagerie of Microbes cocurated by ASCUS http://www.ascus.org.uk and Heather Barnett. The exhibition brought together the work of artists, designers and scientists who shared a passion for microorganisms, which exist in and around us.

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An Artistic Investigation of Tuberculosis © Anna Dumitriu                                                   Crystalised Bacteria © Simon Park                                                                                                 Bacterial cellulose © Urban Morphogenesis Lab

I was particular drawn to this statement in the exhibition: As we go about our daily business we are surrounded by vast colonies of microorganisms, thriving communities existing largely out of sight. They may be small, yet in terms of impact and numbers, they represent the predominate form of life on earth.

The idea of things being out of sight and going unnoticed is one notion I am trying to capture.

This intrigued me and led me to investigate microscopic imagery of samples of my grown Kombucha fabric and also the salt crystals formed on the fabric. I found it fascinating that an optical microscope camera can photograph things you can see but a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) can photograph what you can’t see.

I was blown away with the imagery. I can see there is much potential here.

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Taking things back to the sea

20160421_093734 copyContinuing with my exploratory work of growing Kombucha fabric, I wanted to take my ‘grown’ fabric to where my ideas originated (i.e. back to the sea) to find out what impact seawater might have on it.

To maintain some control over the level and duration of submersion, I chose to bring the seawater back into my studio, so I could monitor any impact closely. Despite leaving the Kombucha fabric submerged for a couple of weeks in the seawater, no significant visible change seemed to be apparent.

This prompted me to create my own concentrated saline solution. As there are on average 35g of salt in every litre of seawater (and this had no visible effect on the fabric), I wanted to increase the strength substantially to see what effect this might have.

After a meeting with Dr. Susan Hilda Jones at UCLAN to discuss different methods of salt crystal growth, I became quite systematic and methodical in my approach, wanting to explore as many avenues as possible.

I chose to trial my experiments at different temperatures and experimented with the use of a heat mat. I also wanted to try different types of salt to see the effect. The 3 main issues I had to consider were – saturation, temperature and method.

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I understood that any normal type of fabric positioned beneath the water level probably would start to grow crystals. I explored different methods of applying the saline solution through dipping, spreading, spraying, painting and dripping.

It was trial and error to begin with as I experimented with different strengths of saline solution, different salts, temperatures and methods.

Through my research I learned that theoretically the slower the method of growing, the bigger the crystals should be and similarly, the cooler the temperature (water and environment) the bigger the crystals should be. Yet I found this was not always the case.

I was soon learning that (just like the growing of Kombucha), I was now working with yet another unpredictable process with inconsistent results but to be honest I found that quite exciting.

I expected there to be irregularities related to the variable room temperature, position and spread of temperature across the heat mat.

5 copyI found that any Kombucha fabric in close proximity to the heat mat or stood for a prolonged period on the heat mat darkened in colour.

There were some fascinating and intriguing results. Crystals were variable in shape and size. Some were cuboid and some were spiky. There were individual crystals; crystals forming clumps and layers, crystals growing on top of other crystals, some with holes in and some without.

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I was intrigued by a faint green line present on some of my samples but I can only speculate this might be due to the copper from the water pipes, chlorine in the tap water, bacteria in the air or perhaps certain elements within the salt itself.

Once the water was completely saturated with salt, it didn’t seem to make any difference to the rate of crystal growth whether there was 40gms or 90gms in a 150ml sample.

I found that any experiments left for a very long time, not only coated the fabric in salt crystals, with crystals duplicating on top of each other but also they started to spread and grew across the surface of the water,  resembling ice.

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I’ve admired the work of Debbie Lyddon http://debbielyddon.co.uk since I saw her Blue Salt Pots at the Upfront Gallery, Penrith in March 2015. Interestingly she too draws inspiration from natural phenomena and changes that occur in a coastal environment. I can relate to her statement that Air, wind, water, light and sound are forever shifting with continuous and infinitesimal change; my work explores these visible and invisible forces and the transformations they engender on the landscape and the objects in it.

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In my research I also came across Tacita Dean’s The Book End of Time (2013) where her interest in time and fascination with Robert Smithson’s spiral jetty and Ballard’s book The Voices of Time culminated in a film alongside a number of photographs, one of which was of this salt encrusted book.

When I grow the Kombucha fabric, there are many transformations taking place over time, both during it’s growing period and when it’s drying. Similarly, the salt crystals are ever-changing from conception through the different stages of growth. With both the Kombucha and the salt crystals I see echoes of the sea’s erosion and construction.

I began to group together my samples and sequences started appearing.

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I am intrigued by the edge where the salt crystals fade into the fabric. Do we read them as disappearing or appearing? The continuous flow created by the edges is almost like the tide lapping at the shore.DSCN3771 copy

I like the inherent fragility and preciousness the salt crystals have, the organic nature and the tactility. The way the crystals not only sit on the surface but also seem to penetrate the fabric.

Interestingly, once you have an image in your head, it starts to take over your life and you start to look for that image everywhere you go, almost as an obsession. Whilst walking alongside the shore recently, I was very conscious of the subtle and continuous sound of the water ceaselessly licking the coast  (Foley 1994:27). It is this very gentle, almost invisible erosive action I am trying to translate through my work. Follow me in my search for this translation.

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Just as an afterthought – I was pleased to be invited recently to exhibit four of my prints relating to sequences, in an exhibition at The Dukes in Lancaster. The exhibition is on display now until 4 June 2016. I hope you get to see them. This is one of my prints.

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The Learning Curve is a Spiral

As previously mentioned, my research into growing Kombucha fabric is very much in its infancy and at the experimental stage.

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I have spent the last month or so, exploring subtle variations in the actual growing process and the effect my interaction has on it. I have also been experimenting with the manipulation of the fabric produced. It is important to me to identify its potential and its limitations.

As it takes over 2 weeks to grow a piece of fabric, it can become quite a precious commodity. With each experiment, I can’t help but feel cautious, as I’m conscious it might prove unsuccessful and that’s two weeks’ work gone. Even when things seem to go wrong, maybe not as I’d hoped or expected, I need to remember it’s all part of the learning process. Things would never change if people weren’t prepared to experiment; to try or test new ideas and methods to find out what effect they have.

I became curious about the actual meanings of relevant words. I wasn’t sure whether I was ‘experimenting’ or ‘exploring’ but I suspect you ‘explore’ something that already exists but in ‘experimenting’ you might create something that does not yet exist. Or maybe not!

To explore – to travel through (an unfamiliar area) in order to learn about it: Inquire into; examine: explore every possibility; to look at (something) in a careful way to learn more about it; to study or analyse (something)  http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/explore

 To experiment – a  test done in order to learn something or…… for the purpose of discovering something unknown http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/experiment

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I quickly learned how important it is to record and document everything, yet despite being an organised person and a non-scientist, this proved to be a challenge. However, there is a certain attraction to serendipity and letting things just happen.

Untitled copy 2Just like working with the sea, I have found growing Kombucha somewhat unpredictable. I have found that trying to recreate a certain effect has proved difficult. Subtleties such as room temperature, light, atmosphere, different types of sugar, vinegar and tea, all have an effect on the grown fabric.

After many trials and research I have come to the conclusion that Kombucha needs the specific combination of tea, sugar, vinegar + a starter culture of microorganisms in order to grow.

I have learned that the longer the Kombucha is left to grow, the thicker the fabric is, presuming there still remains enough sugary tea solution to feed it. I’ve also learned that black tea produces a darker fabric and extra amounts of sugar don’t seem to impact on the speed of growth, as I originally thought it would. Heat also tends to darken the Kombucha whether in the growing or drying process. If the heat is too intense whilst the fabric is growing the water evaporates too quickly, leaving a sticky toffee solution. At times this has been a love-hate relationship!

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Once the fabric is harvested I have been exploring its materiality and what I can do with it through stitch, wax, natural dyeing, image transfer and layering. It’s intriguing how different textures can be created during the drying process dependent on the surface it dries upon.6

As soon as I started experimenting I realised I was just at the beginning of a massive journey of discovery. There is so much to try yet there doesn’t seem enough hours in a day. It’s unclear at this stage where my experimentation will lead. Although this is an exciting period, it is also very scary when there are time deadlines to meet and unsettling with respect to my MA exhibition next October, when I have no idea yet of the outcomes.

But perhaps fear is a good thing. As Maslow (1969) stated…..one can choose to go back to safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.

I am mindful of where my research began, with the dynamics of the sea and its erosion on surfaces and sub surfaces. With the Kombucha, I want to translate change and transformation over time. Just as the sea manages to erode, displace, transform, conceal, reveal and migrate things…I am conscious of this whe20160107_122320n exploring and experimenting with the Kombucha, perhaps leaving traces behind in the process.

 What next?

I plan to continue with the exploratory experimental work, adding materials to the growing process and manipulating the drying process. I want to see how adding things such as salt, natural materials and heavy metal impact on the Kombucha and whether it continues to grow around objects.

In some of my experiments, I was quite intrigued by the salt crystal growth on the Kombucha fabric and so I also intend to explore this further.

I hope you’ll stay with me through the next stage of the journey….

 

New Beginnings

With the start of the New Year, it’s a new beginning for me in terms of setting up a blog for the very first time. My aim is to document my learning journey, thought process, developing work and experiences during my final year on the p/t MA in Textiles Course at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU).

On my MA journey so far, I have explored many avenues, materials, ideas and techniques looking at the dynamics of the sea and its erosion on surfaces and sub surfaces. Initially working with old sailcloth, cotton duck canvas, calico and linen, I have also been working with seaweed as a fabric and more recently become interested in ‘growing’ my own fabric from microorganisms through a process of fermentation.

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Exploring surfaces
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Kelp fabric

Where it all began                                                                                                                                 I’ve always had a strong connection and fascination with the sea, growing up near the coast and with a family history involving the Merchant Navy and the fishing fleet. My own experience as a boat owner, Scuba diver and underwater photographer has reinforced this connection and in particular made me very much aware of the significance of tides and currents.

The coastal landscape is constantly changing under the influence of the sea yet apart from seeing the tide going in and out we are almost oblivious to the more subtle changes that take place on a daily basis. Only after time, do we become aware of the accumulation of these changes. I view this in much the same way as biological time transforming our bodies, yet this also goes unnoticed on a daily scale.

I am intrigued by how the sea manages to erode, transform, displace, conceal, reveal and migrate things through the ebb and flow of the tide and its currents. The tide is predictable in that each day it ebbs and flows driven by the sun and the moon, yet it is unpredictable in how it transforms and displaces things, leaving traces, memories and evidence. It’s fascinating how it interacts with the changing wind, weather systems and the contours of the land in a complex way beyond my grasp and thus seems random or accidental. It’s almost as though the high tide pulls a veil over its activities leaving us unaware of the changes it’s making.

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I’ve been exploring the subject of coastal erosion and have been carrying out experiments in the estuary of the River Lune, near Lancaster, close to where I live. I learned that Morecambe Bay is renowned for its large tidal range, the second highest in the country at over 10metres. Because of this and the nature of the bay, the channels and banks are highly mobile, capable of slow, steady lateral movements and of sudden sideways shifts of several kilometres. The substrate is ever changing and transforming in appearance. Through my experiments, I was starting to witness erosion and deposition that happens on a geological scale but I was seeing it happen on a daily scale.

Poet Kate Foley in her book Soft Engineering describes this action perfectly as: Ceaselessly licking the coast, the sea is engaged in soft engineering (Foley 1994:27)

I placed parcels and structures in the intertidal zone to observe the impact the tide had on them. I started to gain a better understanding of the sea, its movements and currents within the ebb and flow of the tides.

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I documented the changes taking place and became interested in trying to make visible this almost invisible fluctuation and change. I used drawings, stitch, text, photographs, cyanotypes and printmaking (including eco-printing and collagraphs), each time trying to capture the marks and traces left behind by tide and time.

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Where next?                                                                                                                                              I am now in the process of developing my experiments, growing my own fabric and looking at how to translate change and transformation over time.

The fabric is called Kombucha and its use originated with the Fashion Designer Suzanne Lee working with a biologist and in 2003 founding an organization called Biocouture (http://www.biocouture.co.uk).

Using tea and a sugar solution with a symbiotic mix of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY), I have been growing ‘Kombucha’ fabric through a process of fermentation. My understanding is that the bacteria form threads and these bond together to create a non-woven mat. This originated as a by-product when producing the Kombucha fermentation drink. Once it is grown (2-4 weeks) washed and dried, the resulting fabric can be as fine and delicate as tissue paper or as thick and flexible as leather.

 

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My research is still very much in its infancy and at the experimental stage as I explore subtle variations in the actual growing process and the effect my interaction has on it. I am also experimenting with the manipulation of the fabric produced. I need to focus my attentions on how this fabric can be used to explore the impact of the tide and the notion of things changing and transforming over time. How surfaces are affected and how traces  are left behind.

Thank you for taking the time to read this and I hope you’ll ‘follow’ me on this journey of discovery and learning.

Best wishes, Christine